The Smell Detectives

Illustration of factories on the Hudson River in New York City, 1870s.

Illustration of factories on the Hudson River in New York City, 1870s. Library of Congress.

In the 19th century, New York City was an olfactory nightmare. The smells of fish, oysters, and liquor mingled in the streets with the sickly scents of sugar, molasses, and tar. Household garbage festered and putrefied in gutters, while sewers spewed untreated effluent into urban waterways. Slaughterhouses, fat renderers, tanneries, and fertilizer factories all processed animal carcasses and filled the skies with the noxious odors of rotting bodies and burning animal fat. In this reeking atmosphere, the sweetness of flowers and fruit stands provided little relief for residents.

During the 1860s and 1870s New York City experienced unprecedented growth. About 2,000 new buildings were constructed each year, as immigration peaked at 200,000 to 300,000 new arrivals annually. Industries and the wastes they produced multiplied. Smoke was considered a sign of progress, but the intensifying, omnipresent odors signaled a city spinning out of control. People feared that the stinking air poisoned their very bodies, a fear grounded in the medical theories of the day and their own experience of illness. Foul odors were a sure sign of bad air and a pestilential atmosphere, or miasma. New Yorkers reeling from the stink complained to their Board of Health about “the most nauseous, foul, stinking, and pestilential odors.” When the Board of Health failed to control the dangerous aromas, the courts stepped in.

In May 1878 New York City District Attorney Benjamin Phelps indicted the board’s members—scientists and physicians—for “unlawfully, willfully, and contemptuously” neglecting the stench produced by fertilizer manufacturing in Manhattan. After listening to the complaints of citizens a grand jury concluded that the board had neglected its duties and left New Yorkers struggling with headaches, nausea, and insomnia—all the result of city air polluted by foul smells. With summer on the way residents knew that the stench from the slaughterhouses, tanners, and fertilizer manufacturers would only get worse.

How had it come to this? Chemists and regular citizens agreed on the need to regulate noxious industries, yet the city’s residents appeared to be turning on the scientific experts.

Chandler v. the Public Nose

At the time he faced the grand jury, Charles Frederick Chandler, president of the Board of Health, was a prominent figure with a long involvement in city government. Born in 1836 and raised in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Chandler completed his chemistry training in Germany. After his return in 1856 he worked as janitor-assistant in analytical chemistry at Union College in Schenectady before moving to New York City in 1864, where he helped found a new School of Mines at Columbia College.

Chandler’s chemical interests included applying chemistry for the public good. He volunteered his chemical-analysis skills on sanitary questions to the newly formed Board of Health and soon attained a regular position as chemist. By 1866, the year of the board’s establishment, sanitary ideals had risen from pre–Civil War obscurity to a matter of national concern. New York City, home of the Sanitary Commission’s founders, was one of the first American cities to establish a permanent and effective Board of Health. Although exactly how diseases were caused remained unknown, sanitarians firmly believed in their ability to prevent stinky miasmas and their consequences—full-blown sickness.

Thus began Chandler’s lifelong professional commitment to public health, over the course of which he would address impurities in city water, adulterated milk and liquor, dangerous kerosene, poisonous cosmetics, tenement house construction, plumbing and house drainage, summer epidemics, and the care of contagious diseases.

Chandler also committed himself to establishing chemistry as a professional field in the United States. He chaired the 1874 Priestley Centennial, the first national gathering of chemists in the United States, and took up the suggestion of creating a national professional society for chemists independent of the overarching American Association for the Advancement of Science. Chandler then publicized this idea in the pages of American Chemist, a journal he created and edited, and later served twice as president of the new organization, the American Chemical Society.