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In the annals of scientific history, many famous figures have had their lives changed by accident. An apple fell on Newton. Lightning struck Benjamin Franklin’s kite. And a pizza-maker from New York altered Dr. Robert Henkin’s career arc when he walked into Henkin’s office.
In 1969, Henkin, then an obscure neuroendocrinologist, received a visit from the pizzeria owner, who complained of having lost nearly all of his senses of taste and smell, two traits of obvious import in the pizzeria biz. Even worse, what little olfactory ability he had left was detecting phantoms. The pizza guy was convinced, despite repeated assurances, that his supplier was selling him rotten tomatoes. He traipsed from physician to physician until one doctor recommended he visit Henkin.
At the time, Henkin was working at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), studying stimulus receptors in animals. His research indicated that zinc was linked to the senses of taste and smell. The pizza-maker agreed to participate in a single-blind study, signing a consent form permitting Henkin to give him a placebo. In fact, Henkin treated him with zinc, and his sense of smell began to return.
Along with basil and pepperoni, however, the pizza-maker also smelled fame: He called the National Enquirer, which reported to enquiring noses everywhere that a “magician” in Washington could restore lost taste and smell. The tiny, one-paragraph article “changed my life,” says Henkin. “Within a matter of days, there were hundreds of letters from all over the U.S. I established the world’s first taste and smell clinic in response to those letters. I was ordered to [by my superiors at NIH].”
Twenty-six years later, Henkin is still sniffing out problems, although his clinic has moved from NIH to its current MacArthur Boulevard home. As fate would have it, the world’s first taste and smell clinic can be found in a building surrounded by a number of restaurants with fragrant signatures, so there’s a danger that some errant veal piccata molecules might disturb his precisely calculated battery of taste and smell tests. The environment has obliged Henkin to invest in a high-tech ventilation system, which renders his office as odorless as the inside of a fluorescent lightbulb. The lack of olfactory clutter stands in stark contrast to the massive stacks of paper covering his desk and spilling from files throughout the office.
Aromatic engineering evokes fragrances like Obsession and Infinity—or more prosaic ones like Lysol and potpourri—but Henkin is typically engrossed in protein fractionalizations and saliva analyses. For a “magician,” he is more than happy to share trade secrets, with his hands waving and his white hair seeming to stand progressively higher and higher atop his head. Within the first five minutes of any conversation, Henkin excitedly makes the point about the sense of smell that seems lost on the general public: “It doesn’t have anything to do with the nose!” he exclaims. It’s a secret lost even on many physicians. “There’s no constitutency for these patients,” explains Henkin, “no group of physicians who are concerned.”
Unfamiliar with Henkin’s revelation that taste and smell loss is a metabolic condition, doctors will futilely refer aroma-impaired patients to ear, nose, and throat doctors. “They deal with tumors and growths, not taste and smell,” says Henkin, who has had to invent an entire language to explain taste and smell disorders. “What I’m doing will be part of every medical school in the U.S. in 50 or 100 years,” he proclaims proudly.
He gestures up to a textbook languishing on a high shelf: “I had an article in an ENT book once. No one read it.” Still, Henkin acknowledges that over the course of his 40-year career, he has made a name for himself—even though it has faded off the spot where it was inscribed on his lab coat. He manages to draw patients—who wouldn’t be able to smell a rat in Hamlet’s Denmark—from as far away as Israel and Australia.
Two days a week, the doctor sees patients at the clinic; he divides the rest of his time researching at the clinic, at the less cozy confines of NIH, and at Georgetown University Hospital. His clinic, Henkin says, is the only such operation in the country. Taste and smell disorders remain one of the least understood diseases—and most underestimated—in and out of the medical profession, according to Henkin.
A national smell survey organized by perfume companies revealed that 7 percent of the population, which translates to 16 million people, describe themselves as having some problem with their sense of smell. When Today did a feature on Henkin’s research in 1981, there were 25,000 responses from viewers—a record number at the time. According to Henkin, taste and smell loss is often “thought to be a trivial problem. Physicians tend to denigrate this. They say things like, ‘Well, you can still see and hear, so you should be grateful.’ Patients get shunted off to a psychiatrist because the doctor doesn’t know what to do. A lot of people dismiss them as cranks.”
In fact, Henkin says, losing the sense of smell or taste is a devastating experience. The inability to taste rotten food or smell smoke can be potentially life-threatening; Henkin has written letters to insurance companies explaining that the death of a patient who did not try to flee a smoke-filled room was not a suicide. Henkin’s patients frequently suffer significant weight loss, since eating becomes unpleasant; phantom tastes leave sufferers convinced their breath is rancid, which makes them afraid to open their mouths in public. The absence of reliable sensory data can leave patients thinking they are going crazy.
Walter Watkins thought he might be losing his mind after a 1993 car accident in which he suffered serious head injuries. Watkins constantly smelled rot in his kitchen, and disinfected his bathroom time and again to get rid of “overpowering,” but actually nonexistent, smells. The sweeter smells in life were lost to him as well. “My wife would make cookies,” he says, “and the smell when she took the sheet out of the oven was completely uninteresting.” His appetite dropped off almost completely. A neurologist referred Watkins to Henkin, who has treated him with a combination of drugs that he continues to take to maintain his improved sense
Diagnosing such disorders is no easy task. Step one is a battery of taste and smell tests. “In the old days,” Henkin says, “patients used to have to wear a hood” when they took the smell test. Thanks to the new ventilation system, Watkins can now identify tastes and smells—“sweet,” “tangy,” and so on—out in the open. A series of laboratory tests allows Henkin to peek at the chemical levels that are key to Watkins’ smell-reception system. Blood and urine samples are collected. Then, with a pumping device attached directly to the salivary gland, four vials of saliva are extracted. “I got the four vials out in five minutes,” Watkins says. “They say I’m one of the fastest.”
Finally, Henkin goes over Watkins’ chart, methodically explaining every detail of his progress. His eyes flash with the zeal of a sleuth as he tells of discoveries gleaned from proteins and enzymes. “There’s dynamite biochemistry here,” he says.
There may be limits to the practical uses of taste and smell chemistry, but Henkin does have a keen ability to solve smelly dilemmas. Last May, he played odor sleuth at the 9:30 Club at the behest of Washington City Paper, identifying the club’s famous funk as the product of the oxidization of beer, nicotine, and other nightclub substances by the phenols contained in the club’s disinfectant. “[City Paper] gave me a T-shirt,” laughs Henkin. “I think it’s one of the few things I’ve ever done that my kids like.”
A skilled analyst of blood and saliva samples he may be, but Henkin is no Paul Prudhomme when it comes to his own taste buds. “I’m a clod,” he declares. “A modest taster.” Dissecting the magic of culinary or aromatic exotica, however, is not the point. Taste and smell, like sight and sound, may be ephemeral pieces of life to those who can experience them, but to those who cannot, they are important absences. “The perfume companies make millions selling mystery,” says Henkin. “I sell solid science.”