A Plea for Nostril Research

The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: We received this note via a scholarly e-mail discussion list, and immediately offered to aid Dr. Landry in his research. The text is reproduced here with Dr. Landry's blessing.]

(Image credit: Flickr user Jeff and Maggie G)


Currently I am in the middle stages of researching a project I'm calling Nostril Noster: Inside the Modern Nose. While scholars-Sander Gilman most significantly-have unraveled a complex history of medical formation of the outside of the nose (rhinoplasty etc.), the inside is terra incognita and for good reason, since the nostril plays such an ambiguous role in the history of the modern body. It is both an entry way and a barrier, an invitation for passage and a delicate mechanism for excluding entry. Because of this double nature, however, the nostril has attracted attention from fetishists, novelists, painters, as well as scientists and doctors.

We can date the beginning of the "medicalization" of the nostril rather precisely. While nasal prosthesis was not uncommon in earlier periods, Thomas Buchanan's 1823 invention of a working nasal catheter (key for drainage in cases of syphilis and extreme sinus infection) was, to my knowledge, the first successful medical intervention into the interior of the nose. Catheterization became common medical practice in physician's offices and sanitoria alike, and the nostril became a symbol of repellency in the human form. In the twentieth century, however, the nostril made a comeback. In particular, with Joseph Heitger's discovery of the hygienic function of the interior hairs, it became an emblem of artistic modernism, a site for renewed medical investigation, and, especially, an object for technological innovation.

From the development-first in the US in the early 1930s-of the first interior hair clippers, and the medical establishment's fierce reaction against such interventions, the nostril generated an entire industry of medical and hygienic nostril devices and an entire cultural rhetoric devoted to their propagation and, occasionally, their demolition. With the case of James Harvey, brutally injured by the first General Electric prototype motorized hair removal system (1934), the cultural ambivalence about the scientific control of the nostril in this country reached its height. Expressions of disgust with technological nasal intervention were expressed in popular and "high-art" media alike, and a backlash of fetishistic interest in natural nostrils ensued. Edward Podolsky's Nose and Sex (1946) is one extreme example, but I'm hoping to track down many more.

On the Continent, in contrast, these devices never took hold. Instead pharmaceutical regulation of the interior of the nose became highly sophisticated. Nasal inhalers (first widespread use in chemical weapons testing programs in Germany in the mid-1930s) were developed to combat excess build-up of nasal mucosa, and public campaigns both for and against nasal irrigation were common in the period immediately before and after the war. At the same time, too, the purged nostril seems to have been much more an object of sexual fantasy, both its exterior and interior. Don Aléra's La reine esclave (6 vols.!) was a paean to the nose and nostrils as a key erogenous zone in domination games, for example.

While I have a sense of the broad outlines of the aesthetic side of the story (nostrils, like George Bataille's toes, are eroticized precisely because they are both filthy and medically controlled), and I've done some work in both American and European archives, I am eager for assistance in locating more general scientific and medical materials. Overall suggestions are welcome (I do little with race, for example, in the current project).

Also, I'm having trouble locating the papers and correspondence of the following doctors/scientists/engineers:

--Greenfield Sluder, author of Nasal Neurology (1927)
--Marcus Hajek (1861-1941), codeveloper of Germany's nasal inhaler program for the Wehrmacht.
--Ludwig Grunwald, professor at Heidelberg, and expert on suppurative diseases of the nose ca. 1910.
--Beverley Robinson, earliest British female pioneer of studies on nasal catarrh in the 1890s

Any assistance more than welcome,

--Melvin Landry, Independent Scholar


This article is republished with permission from the July-August 2001 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift! Visit their website for more research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.

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