Bad breath, halitosis and oral odor in general have been a problem since the beginning of recorded history. Not only can smelly breath cause social offense and leave people feeling isolated, but it can also signal poor dental health or bad oral hygiene. Thanks to letters sent by history's luminaries, we can see that oral odor has been putting people off for centuries.
A letter sent by Jane Austen to her older sister, Cassandra, is a fine example. According to a review in the UK Daily Mail of a volume of Austen's correspondence, the author and documentor of Victorian social custom could be downright mercenary in private.
Written in 1800, the letter documents a night spent at a local ball, as well as her displeasure with practically everyone she met there.
"The General has got the gout, and Mrs. Maitland the jaundice," she recounted, before moving on to more odiferous matters "Miss Debary, Susan and Sally, all in black, but without any stature, made their appearance, and I was as civil to them as their bad breath would allow me."
It is tempting to think that, in a century when no one (Austen included) had access to specialty breath freshening products, bad breath and halitosis could be ignored, since presumably most people had it. Letters like this one prove otherwise.
Here are excerpts from other famous correspondents, all of whom had a problem with their oral odor or that of those around them.
- Writer and historian Thomas Carlyle reviled the small of halitosis, to the point that other odor seem to have reminded him of it. During an especially hot summer, he wrote to his wife that "the streets get villainously baked, an unwholesome stew of bad breath coming out of every cellar and grocer's shop." He added that such smells made him pray for rain. Interestingly, moisture does indeed reduce the smells of bad breath, halitosis, fetor ex ore or whatever you choose to call it.
- Erasmus Darwin, an Enlightenment-era physician and philosopher, records in a letter the halitosis of a very ill man: "Breath still bad. Mr. Fox and myself both thought him nearly hopeless, and dare bleed no further." Bloodletting has since been dropped by the medical community.
- Bertrand Russell, an esteemed logician and mathematician during the early 20th century, wrote that his bad breath crippled his relationship with his first wife. "I suffered from pyorrhea although I did not know it, and this caused my breath to be offensive, which I also did not know. She could not bring herself to mention it," he state in a letter much later.