The Camberwell Society

Society for those living, working or interested in Camberwell

On the scent of a discovery

On the Scent Paola Totaro, Robert Wainwright Elliot & Thompson paperback £10.99


Local writer Paola Totaro lost her sense of smell as a result of Covid and wrote a book about it

When I was a child growing up in Sydney in the 1970s, kids’ literature was predominantly British. The English countryside became the province of my imagination with the creatures of Wind in the Willows at the epicentre. This month, as I eagerly await the paperback edition of On the Scent, my book about the sense of smell, I was reminded of the profoundly moving moment when Mole, journeying with Ratty, sniffs the wind, and catches a whiff of his long-lost home.

“It was one of these mysterious fairy calls from out the void that suddenly reached Mole in the darkness, making him tingle through and through with its very familiar appeal … his nose searching hither and thither in its efforts to recapture the fine filament, the telegraphic current, that had so strongly moved him. A moment, and he had caught it again; and with it this time came recollection in fullest flood.”

Proust and his madeleines, frankly, had nothing on Kenneth Grahame. Little did I know that half a century later, in my neighbour’s garden in Camberwell, I would join Mole in spontaneous sobs when my Covid-ravaged nose perceived the scent of Spring jasmine after eight long months of smelling nothing. The elation and sheer joy I felt in that instant when a hint of olfaction returned will remain locked in my memory forever as will the sense of relief that I might be one of the lucky ones who actually recover their fifth sense.

My nose was taken out on March 27, 2020. It was sudden. Smell disappeared in an instant as if a light had been turned off. When I realised I couldn’t even smell bleach, it felt as if my world had upended, and I was dropping in a faulty elevator. The UK had just gone into lockdown, but this was not a recognised Covid symptom. When I rang the GP, they brushed it aside as coincidence. I had been reporting on Covid in Italy for Australian newspapers, however, and had begun to hear anecdotal reports of sudden onset smell loss from Italian patients and their doctors. Intrigued, I googled smell loss – its medical name is anosmia – and would find out later that hundreds and thousands of others were doing the same.

So began a two-year journey in which I scoured the scientific and medical world to try to learn more about a sense I had never really thought about, but now missed like a severed limb. The quest for answers took me into the laboratories of some of the world’s top neuroscientists (often by Zoom as the world remained closed) and the surgeries of Ear Nose and Throat specialists. I spoke to people who had lost their sense of smell due to brain injury and picked the brains of philosophers who explained the mysteries of our perception of smell and flavour.

I charted my own, strange and stop-start recovery and spent a week in Dresden in Germany alongside young olfactory scientists and physicians learning about the physiology of smell. One afternoon, in an anatomy lab, I held a human brain in my hands and examined the olfactory system in a severed human skull. I learned about parosmia, the medical name for the terrible distortions of smell and taste that can afflict some people as their nasal membranes recover in the wake of the virus.

The result of my journey is On the Scent, a book which I hope will spark a renewed interest smell, often called the Cinderella of the senses because historically it has attracted less attention than sight or hearing. Most importantly, I’d like the specialist scientists and physicians whose voices are documented to be heard more widely. Their message is a powerful one that warns us that smell is a sentinel of health and can signal onset of some serious neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s well before any symptoms appear.

Smell should be part of our everyday health checks and GPs need to take it more seriously.

Re-reading little Mole’s thoughts about the caressing appeals from his nose, those soft touches that are wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging him toward his home, reminded me that I had really only valued my sense of smell when I lost it. And that’s a lesson I will never forget.

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The Camberwell Society was formed in 1970 and is the recognised amenity society for those living, working or interested in Camberwell.

The Society’s objectives, as defined by our constitution, are: to stimulate public interest in Camberwell, to promote high standards of planning and architecture in Camberwell, and to secure the preservation, protection, development and improvement of features of historic or public interest in Camberwell.

We are a charity and raise money for local charities. In the past we have raised money for Southside Rehabilitation Association, St Giles Trust, Cambridge House, the CamberwellCommunity Choir, the HollingtonYouth Centre and the Camberwell Arts Festival