Making Sense of Scents: The Art and Science of Olfaction and Perfumery (55+)

When was the last time you exercised your nose? Olfaction, often called the neglected sense, is nevertheless the oldest sense. It is directly linked to the deepest, most primitive parts of your brain.

Using paper smelling-strips, we’ll open up our nasal passages and awaken old memories. (Think of it as going to the “gymnosium”!) The workout begins with scents from biblical times and early Indigenous cultures. Passing through the millennia, we’ll cover the evolution of the nose and molecular communication. We’ll sniff around the science of olfaction, revealing its mysteries and explaining aromatherapy and essential oils. We’ll also get down to business: from toothpaste to the high fashion world of fine fragrance, we’ll look at how some of the richest billionaires on Earth owe their fortunes to scent.

Note: Back by popular demand, from fall 2017.

Please note that enrollment in this course is reserved for adults 55+.

Currently not available for registration.

What will I learn?

Week 1: Social History of Scent

Smell the hyssop that washed the feet of Jesus, the galbanum that scents the Hajj, and the sandalwood of Buddhist temples. Through Medieval, Renaissance, Enlightenment and modern times we explore how people employed fragrance in sweat lodges, wigs, pomades, and many other ways for both medicinal and romantic purposes.

Week 2: Natural History of Scent

From simple molecules to the unimaginable complexity of the brain, we learn what smell is and how it works. We dissect the fragrance of a rose and study the aging nose, tracing the evolutionary and technological milestones in fragrance innovation.

Week 3: Healthy and Handy Scents

Does aromatherapy really work? If so, how? We smell many essential oils and learn their practical applications. We discuss tinctures, amateur perfumery and “perfumotherapy”.

Week 4: The Business of Fragrance

We sniff the ingredients that shaped perfumery over the last two centuries and subsequently changed the scent of successive generations of wearers and society as a whole. We focus on Rochas, Chanel and Estée Lauder.

Week 5: Stinks and Pongs

Life is not all a bed of roses. Vomit, feces, feet, breath, fish, garbage, rot and death all play a part. We examine why things smell bad, what it means, and how to reduce such odours.

Week 6: Adventures in Grasse

We share experiences, images and, above all, scents collected during a trip to the world capital of perfume—Grasse, on the French Riviera.

How will I learn?

  • Lectures
  • Discussion (may vary from class to class)
  • Papers (applicable only to certificate students)

How will I be evaluated?

For certificate students only:

Your instructor will evaluate you based on an essay, which you will complete at the end of the course. You will receive a grade of “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.”

Textbooks and learning materials

Reading material (if applicable) will be available in class. Some course materials may be available online.

If you're 55+, you may take this course as part of

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