Gabrielle Glaser remembers with little affection the early years spent with her nose, which she says looks "like a large triangle nose drawn by a child."
Oh sure, her nose -- a product of her Jewish/Native American heritage -- was quite perceptive, allowing her to sense when the creek was going to rise (she picked up a faint dampness in the air), when her mother was about to have a migraine (Mom would break out the chocolate) or when an injury had occurred (Glaser could smell the blood before she saw it).
But her large nose was also a source of terrible embarrassment. Glaser remembers entering her seventh-grade classroom one day to see a boy scrawling something on the board. Reading it, she was crushed. "Ask Gabrielle. She nose it all."
"My nose was always the center of my life," says Glaser, who grew up in Oregon. She began saving up for rhinoplasty at age 12, the age at which she learned there was such a thing.
It took a post-college move to the District for Glaser to finally feel at home, nose-wise. "There, I had Italian and Jewish and Greek friends, and my whole idea of what was beautiful just relaxed," says Glaser.
Her next step was to spend several years contemplating the role of the fleshy protuberance in art and popular culture, and exploring why the most central of facial features is so often maligned and misunderstood. The result is "The Nose: A Profile of Sex, Beauty, and Survival" (Atria/Simon & Schuster, 2002).
In her deeply researched narrative, Glaser -- a journalist who has written for the New York Times, Glamour, Health and many other publications -- throws herself headlong down the nose's dark and mysterious passageways, exploring everything from how badly humans smelled until there was running water and soap to how folks came to believe that the size of the nose reveals a man's penis size. She explains how the thing works, chronicles the history of nose jobs and visits a fragrance guru to examine that industry. And no book on noses would be complete without a discussion of snorting snuff and cocaine.
In the beginning, says Glaser, the world stank, as most ancient folks found themselves caked with sweat, dirt and manure. Some of the more unusual early attempts to deodorize included stuffing balls of pine resin under the arms and placing waxy cones of semi-solid perfumes on the head, letting the cone melt and scent the body below in time-release fashion.
Smells became wrapped up in spirituality, Glaser tells us. The ancient Egyptians believed all pleasant odors emanated from the tears and sweat of the deities. And early Muslims believed that flatulence caused angels to go blind. In fact, the author explains, if a person passed wind outside a mosque, the act was so connected with evil that people marked spots where it occurred with small piles of stones.
While the effort to staunch the stench continued, early scientists were drawn to the nose, believing the organ held clues to the secrets of the brain, lungs and even the soul. But since these experts remained largely ignorant of the body's inner workings until relatively recently, Glaser's examination of the nose in science turns up one kooky notion after another. For instance, the second-century Greek physician Galen believed mucus emerging from the nose signaled that the brain was liquefying. Since colds often killed people in those days, this symptom was seen as a terrible harbinger. Folks went with this theory for 1,500 years. Also, we are told, deviated septums were thought caused by chronic nose picking.
Then came physiognomy, the pseudoscience of judging a person's character by their looks. This had been in vogue back in Aristotle's time, but became a craze in the 18th century. Naturally, the nose was at the center of it. A popular book penned by George Jabet claimed that a Roman nose -- a large, beak-like nose with a bump in the middle -- indicated great decisiveness and considerable energy, while a snub nose revealed weakness and poverty of character. Greek noses -- prominent and very straight from the top to the tip -- were seen as the height of beauty, while convex, thin and sharp Jewish noses, perhaps reflecting the anti-Semitism of the time, were said to signal deep insight into character and considerable shrewdness.
Glaser says this is why most portraits of George Washington rendered him in profile: His Roman nose was heralded as indicating firmness and inner wisdom. Napoleon is said to have chosen only strategists with long noses. And Glaser reports that Charles Darwin was almost prohibited from venturing to the Galapagos Islands because his nose was wide and fleshy -- not the sort of sniffer befitting an important scientist at the time.
Sex and the Nose
Then came the odd period of sexualizing the nose. Perhaps because the nose contains some erectile tissue, which swells and stiffens with engorgement, Sigmund Freud and other Victorian doctors linked the organ to everything from painful cramps to masturbation. Glaser writes about a patient of Freud's, the daughter of prominent Viennese socialists, who complained of stomach pains and menstrual cramps. Freud traced all her ills to excessive masturbation and asked a prominent Berlin otolaryngologist to remove bones from within her nose. At the time, this was said to be the only way to permanently cure female sexual disorders.
Several operations were performed on the girl, all of which went awry, with much hemorrhaging and her nose and cheek nearly collapsing on themselves. Not surprisingly, none of this cured her original problems. In the end, the doctors blamed the girl, with Freud claiming that her hemorrhages were hysterical in nature, the result of sexual longing.
The nose's perceived sexual connection continued well into the 1920s, when a prominent Baltimore physician lectured that runny noses were the body's own punishment for a lack of sexual self-restraint.
Then, Glaser explains, scientists related the nose to emotion. A series of studies conducted at Cornell University in the 1940s reported showing that stuffiness, post-nasal drip and sneezing were directly related to humiliation, anxiety and dejection. One study was titled "Chronic Disease of the Sinuses . . . in an Anxious, Dissatisfied, Resentful Woman who Based her Security on her 'Good Looks' and 'Sexual' Assets, and Who Feared She Was Losing Both."
Andrew Lane, assistant professor of head and neck surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said the historical facts Glaser unearthed about the nose aren't taught in medical school, but perhaps they should be.
"I hadn't been aware of the fascinating historical perspective, and I'm sure most other doctors aren't, either," he said, adding that the book "gave me a unique understanding of what scientists thought about the nose before my time."
Lane, who specializes in research on chronic sinusitis, said Glaser's chapter on treating the condition tells it straight. Glaser herself underwent four operations for chronic sinusitis, which affects one in seven Americans and can cause debilitating, allergy-like symptoms for weeks or longer. For a year after her surgeries, Glaser was left completely without her once-acute sense of smell -- a loss that she initially found devastating but that later inspired her research into all things nose. Only powerful steroids enabled her to recover, she said.
Taking the High Road
Though the book is funny and frank, it doesn't deliver the goods about snot. Not a single booger joke in the book. Glaser admits this was by design.
"I didn't want to be too gross; I was worried I'd put people off," she said. The only fun mucous fact she can pass along is that the body makes between a pint and a quart of the stuff per day.
Like any good researcher, Glaser reports that much more needs to be learned. Science has yet to determine just how crucial the ability to detect odors is to living: to sex and love, to eating and remembering, to protection and health, to inspiring and bewitching. Americans now drop $10 billion a year on perfumes and deodorants, and the National Institutes of Health is spending more than ever to understand olfaction. All of this, Glaser says, suggests the organ is nosing ahead.
"The renaissance of the nose," she says, "is almost here." And then she adds with a sigh: "And still my mother keeps reminding me that it's not too late for rhinoplasty."
Suz Redfearn is a regular contributor to the Health section.