The refrigerator in Dr. George Preti’s lab is full of foul smells. But that’s no accident. The 68-year-old organic chemist collects odors—specifically, body odors.
Preti has vials of chemicals secreted from every crevice on the human body, and he claims they all have unique and complex aromas. “Body odors are not uniform,” he says. “Your hair smells different than your mouth, your mouth smells different than your armpit, your armpit smells different than your crotch, and your crotch smells different than your feet.”
As a connoisseur of body odors, Preti is hesitant to name a personal favorite. But if pressed, he admits a fondness for 3-methyl-2-hexenoic acid. “It’s a complex mixture of chemical compounds in perspiration that causes a very identifiable odor,” he says. In other words, that stinky smell that emanates from your underarms when you sweat.
Preti has good reason to be a fan; he was the first to identify the compound in 1989. As for his least favorite odor, he’s less than enthusiastic about “swine slurry,” the combination of feces, urine, food and mud that originates on pig farms. (Yes, he has a vial of that, too.)
Preti has been studying odors for just under 40 years, primarily at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, which he joined in 1971. His research has yielded some shocking discoveries, like a 2003 study that revealed male perspiration can reduce tension and increase relaxation in women. (The study involved applying male underarm sweat to the upper lips of 18 women between the ages of 25 and 45.)
He also occasionally consults patients, but only if their conditions are extremely rare. Preti’s specialty is trimethylaminuria, a genetic disorder that causes people to smell like dead, rotting fish. There are only 700 documented cases in the world, and 115 of them are being treated by Preti. Among his patients, 20 percent are what he calls extreme, who “produce enough odor to stink out a room.”
Financing for Preti’s research doesn’t come easy. Although it costs him roughly $3,000 to treat patients, he charges them only $300. (Monell isn’t a traditional medical facility set up to accept health insurance.) Preti spends most of his days writing grant proposals to organizations like the National Institutes of Health, which—best case scenario—might award him a grant in the low six figures for a 5-year research period. “Getting government grants is a little bit better than playing at the casino,” Preti says. “Sometimes the odds are with you, and sometimes they’re against you.”
Preti’s main sources of funding are Monell’s corporate sponsors, which include companies like Johnson & Johnson, L’Oréal, and Procter & Gamble. “I liken it to a country club,” he says. “You pay X amount of dollars each year, and that gives you privileges to use the club facilities.”
What privileges come with investing in body odor science, you ask? For a fragrance company like Symrise, a longtime Monell sponsor, the research has had a direct influence on their product development. “Males and females perceive body odors differently,” Preti says. “There are certain chemicals that are used in all fragrance products, but they don’t work on both sexes.” Using Preti’s research on odor recognition, Symrise developed a line of gender-specific deodorants.
For a scientist who’s devoted his life and career to smelling unpleasant odors, Preti has a healthy sense of humor. He uses the word “stinky” far more than you might expect. And he isn’t shy about sharing less-than-flattering stories. This one takes the cake: Once, he spilled a flask filled with concentrated armpit extract, which shattered on the floor of his lab and covered Preti’s sneakers. He cleaned the mess and put his shoes in a plastic bag, thinking he had contained the odor. “But it’s like when you work in a restaurant where they’re cooking something really pungent,” he says. “After you’ve been there for awhile, you don’t smell the odor anymore.”
Preti took the train home, getting more than a few dirty looks from his fellow commuters, and was picked up at the station by his wife. “As soon as I got in the car, she said, ‘You smell like a street person!’ She was just overwhelmed with the odor, and I couldn’t smell anything,” he says. Preti later calculated that he had spilled the equivalent of “about 600,000 people’s armpits” onto his sneakers and pants.
He learned a hard lesson: The power of body odor can’t be underestimated. And those sneakers? “I threw them out,” he says. “There’s no way I could’ve neutralized the smell.”
As an expert in stink, Preti should know.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on MensHealth.com.)