From antiquity to today, the authorities on bad breath were rarely shy about it
SUMMARY: The history of bad breath is long (and weird) indeed.
Posted: May 9, 2012
For as long as we've been on this Earth, humans have suffered from bad breath. However, far from being an ignorable fact of life, halitosis is intrusive, irritating and sometimes indicative of poor oral health. It's little wonder, then, that physicians, healers, philosophers, statesmen, religious authorities, wellness experts and outright quacks have been declaiming about oral odor for millennia.
Here are some of the things history's authorities had to say about halitosis.
Keep in mind that until the 19th century or so, virtually every theory about halitosis was incorrect. Only today do we have an accurate, scientific idea of what causes oral odor (bacteria) and what clears it up (specialty breath fresheners).
Hippocrates (c. 460 - c. 370 BCE)
Nicknamed "the Father of Western Medicine," the Greek physician Hippocrates almost single-handedly changed European medicine into an evidence-based pursuit. Unlike his predecessors, he was usually a calm, rational thinker who looked for physical (not supernatural) causes of illness.
When it came to bad breath, he certainly had strong opinions. In his "On the Judgment of Physiognomy," he wrote: "He whose mouth smells of a bad breath is one of a corrupted liver or lungs, is oftentimes vain, wanton, deceitful or indifferent intellects, covetous and a promise-breaker. He that has a sweet breath is the contrary." Always a proponent of treatment, he recommended that people with halitosis gargle a mixture of wine, dill seeds and anise.
Aristotle (384 - 322 BCE)
One of the world's greatest philosophers, Aristotle was direct heir to the tradition of Socrates and Plato (his mentor). Perhaps because he came into contact with so many windbags at the School of Athens, he was well aware of bad breath. In his writings, he even mentioned rumination syndrome, an uncommon condition that causes digested food to back up into the pharynx, giving off a powerful odor. His is considered one of the earliest mentions of the condition.
Pliny the Elder (23 - 79 CE)
A Roman naturalist, scholar and statesman, Pliny wrote and read so much that he preferred being carried on a litter to walking (so he could squeeze in more reading). In his encyclopedia (the first ever written), he touched on nearly everything, even the halitosis of animals. Pliny explained that "the lion and the bear 'have halitosis,' the bear terribly." Good to know!
A gigantic record of ancient Indian history and lore, the Mahabarata includes the first recorded case of trimethylaminuria, a rare inherited disorder that makes the breath and sweat smell like fish.
Galen (129 - c. 200 CE)
A giant of medicine, the Roman physician Galen's ideas influenced physiology and surgery for almost 1,500 years (even the ones that were totally incorrect). Among other things, he believed in the theory of bodily humors, and his anatomies of people (which, for whatever reason, were based on pigs and monkeys) were the go-to reference until 1543, when anatomist Vesalius cut open actual humans.
Galen believed in smelling bad breath when making a diagnosis. However, so many people had halitosis back then that Galen rarely gave oral odor much credence. He far preferred licking a patient's sweat and using the taste to guide him (e.g. bitterness might mean jaundice).
John Harvey Kellogg (1852 - 1943)
A doctor and proponent of holistic medicine, Kellogg had some strange, and now widely discredited, views. (Look up his opinions on sexuality, for instance). As a cure for everything from pimples and bad breath to "self-abuse," he recommended that people eat a famous cereal created by him and his brother.
Currently, most halitosis experts and breath clinicians know more than all the aforementioned personages combined - about bad breath, anyway. Today, most experts recommend using oxygenating, alcohol-free specialty breath freshening products to get rid of any and all oral odors.