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Inside a Top-Secret Factory Where Scent Is Made

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By Arthur Holland Michel

The concrete and glass headquarters don’t look like much, the sort of personality-devoid architecture you could find in any office park. It’s clever camouflage for the cutting edge Willy Wonka-style labworks within.

I’ve been following the scent of International Flavor and Fragrances (IFF) in Hazlet, New Jersey, for 10 days now. There’s a rumor that one company is responsible for perfecting the distinctive formulas of both Drakkar Noir and Cool Ranch Doritos, and I think I’ve found it. Of course, no one here is going to confirm who’s on the company’s top-secret client list. What I do know is that, with a little badge flashing and credential dropping, I’ve finally found my way in. I’m not sure what I’ll be shown, but I’ve been told I can’t photograph any of it. I’m just here to sniff.

In the spotless, light-filled lobby, there’s a promotional video playing on a loop: a man in a space-age lab coat sticking a loaf of crusty bread into an aroma-capturing device. My nose immediately detects a hint of my first crush’s perfume—a certain citrus with floral notes—and I wonder if her scent originated here. IFF, a multibillion-dollar international corporation, has fingerprints everywhere as the designer of flavor and scent profiles of many of the most popular products on the market, from the fruity rush that dazzles your tongue as you rip the head off a gummy bear to the pine-forest freshness wafting from a freshly cleaned toilet bowl.

The scientists who work here harness natural scents and meticulously reproduce them for commercial use. And they’ve been doing it for a while—the company’s roots go back to 1889, when two residents of the small Dutch town of Zutphen opened a concentrated fruit juice factory. The enterprise grew consistently and benefited from a cunning 1958 merger with van Ameringen-Haebler, a prominent U.S. flavor and scent maker. Back in 1974, IFF scientists created a synthetic version of ambergris, otherwise known as dried whale vomit, long prized as an essential for perfumes. In the ’90s, the company blasted a rose into space just to see if it would smell different in zero gravity. (It did!) Today, I’m hoping to get a peek at the art and chemistry of creating a distinct aroma and find out how they turn all those smells into billions of dollars.

Past reception, the long, dreary hallway feeds into a lush tropical rainforest. Housing some 2,000 plant species, IFF’s greenhouse—one of several dozen such facilities worldwide—is massive and immaculately kept. The humidity here is intense. There are orchids everywhere. I can hear what sounds like a small river. I almost expect to look up and see a macaque swinging over my head. The director of IFF’s Nature Inspired Fragrance Technologies program, Subha Patel, guides me along. This is her operation. “Everything in here has an odor, and you should smell every one of them,” Patel tells me as she parts low-hanging branches to lead me deeper in. This workspace feels like the Amazon (I would know, having grown up in South America).

Patel is soft-spoken and warm. She tells me she’s been with IFF for nearly 37 years, groomed as a protégé of Braja Mookherjee, the IFF scientist who invented much of the technology the company uses to capture the scent of living things. As she talks, it’s clear she adores the plants she cultivates here. Although she has inhaled their blooms every day for decades, she still rel- ishes each aroma. At every step, she stops me. “Smell this,” she says, demonstrating the proper way to coax a plant into sharing its fragrance. She gently clutches its leaves, taking care not to crush them. Then, carefully letting them go, she raises her hand to her nose to take in the fragrance. “Smell this,” she repeats, a few paces later.

I sample a rare orchid from Madagascar labeled “white orchid” (one of Patel’s favorites), ylang-ylang (which smells like a musky animal), patchouli (“popular for men’s fragrances”), guava (which smells like stale cat pee or, as Subha puts it, “different and unique”). The most impressive is the chocolate flower, which could double for a Cadbury bar. It’s from these natural specimens that Patel and her team begin the work of creating an artificial smell or flavor.

IFF

Chocolate—or anything else—smells the way it does because it emits a specific combination of volatile chemicals. It’s part of Patel’s job to decipher exactly what those chemicals are. To capture the scent in order to study its chemical composition, she uses a process called solid-phase microextraction. That’s a fancy way of saying she places a jar over the object and inserts a thin strip of polymer into the glass to absorb the fragrance. This is a delicate process. Patel has to be careful to make sure that no other scents are sneaking in, though she admits that in nature it’s impossible to completely isolate any single aroma—she finds a certain romance in that. The jar system lets the scientists capture the scent of a plant without killing it. “The flower has a better aroma profile when it’s alive,” Patel says, handing me a twig of fragrant cinnamon.

From the greenhouse, the sample goes to the lab, where a team analyzes its chemical composition using gas chromatography–mass spectrometry, a technique you might remember from high school chemistry. First, a machine separates the aroma into its component molecules. Every chemical is then ionized so that it gives off a particular electrical signal. With this data the scientists can see exactly what chemicals are present in the scent and in what proportion. A formula for jasmine, for example, might include methyl benzoate, eugenol, and isophytol. Meanwhile, a cinammony fabric softener will probably contain something called cinnamaldehyde, also known by the more tongue-tying name 3-phenylprop-2-enal.

Of course, plants are only part of IFF’s extensive scent palette. Beyond the greenhouse, the company has also re-created hundreds of living smells, including the aroma of horses, the musk of deer and civets, and the rich bouquet of freshly minted money (which some private clients request for custom perfumes). The technique can theoretically be used for anything: In 1997, IFF announced that it had captured the smell of a mountaintop. But what exactly is it doing with this vast library of scents?

I quickly learn that breaking down the natural scents is just the start. From the lab, an aroma is shipped off to the master artists of the fragrance world: the perfumers and scent design managers. They’re the ones who mix individual aromas, along with other aromatic chemicals, to create the scents that end up in your household sundries and cosmetics. If each smell Patel captures is like a single shade of paint, a finished fragrance is like a whole canvas. But creating an aroma for a cleaning product, for example, isn’t just a matter of making something that smells clean.

“We’re trying to make a tedious experience more interesting,” says Stephen Nicoll, a vice president and senior perfumer. Nicoll joins me, along with Deborah Betz, one of IFF’s keen-nosed scent design managers, in a large neutral-smelling conference room. (Nicoll and Betz experience the world nose first. They talk about fabric softeners the way sommeliers talk about fine wines. And they take pains to cleanse their palates—Nicoll says he takes a week- long smell vacation every year in a remote forest to give his nose a break.)

Creating a fragrance, I learn, is more than hard science: It’s also about psychological and emotional manipulation. Your sense of smell is different from the other physical senses. While the eyes and ears take information and route it through the thalamus before it goes to the parts of the brain that process and interpret it, the nose sends signals directly to the olfactory receptors, which lie in the limbic system, the part of the brain that processes emotions and memory. This is why the faintest whiff of a fragrance can teleport you instantly back to a specific time or place and trigger powerful emotions—like that indelible memory of my childhood crush.

The companies that make household products have a large stake in the specific emotions their items evoke. You’re not going to buy something over and over if it triggers an unpleasant feeling; marketers want you to feel comfortable and content so you become a loyal customer. So Nicoll and Betz’s job is to make sure that when you sniff your freshly pressed shirt each morning, you feel a manufactured nostalgia—the sort of specific, custom-ordered emotion your fabric softener brand wants you to feel.

In fact, IFF has trademarked its own scientific field: aroma science. In 1982, IFF collaborated with scientists at Yale University to carry out the first extensive studies on the effects odors have on human emotions. Within 10 years, researchers had made a number of remarkable discoveries, including the fact that a whiff of nutmeg can reduce a stressed person’s blood pressure. (Take that, pumpkin spice haters!) Peppermint, on the other hand, seems to be something of an aphrodisiac.

To measure a smell’s emotional impact, Nicoll and his team have volunteers sniff aromas in a controlled environment and then fill out a carefully worded questionnaire that measures responses like irritation, optimism, well-being, and arousal. Analyzing the participants’ responses, Nicoll can tell exactly which fragrance to add to, say, a fabric softener so that it makes the consumer feel “cuddly.” (The secret: notes of amber, a sweet, warm tone typically made from a mix of balsams like labdanum, vanilla, and fir.)

Another secret: Smells go in and out of style. So IFF takes pains to protect its billion-dollar interest and stay ahead of the curve. To gauge what’s fashionable, Betz and other IFF employees take “trend treks.” Recently, they visited stores and restaurants in New York to see which fragrances and foods are at the forefront. These days, it’s sea salt and cherry blossom, Betz says. And although it’s not advisable to eat your laundry, food scents are increasingly finding their way into home-care products. “Ten years ago,” says Betz, “you would never have thought to see a vanilla scent in a floor cleaner.”

If vanilla floor cleaner is what people want, Nicoll’s job is to give it to them. To avoid contaminating the tests, Nicoll and Betz aren’t allowed to wear perfumes and must wash their clothes with unscented detergents. Today, Nicoll is working on fabric softener, mixing the chemicals and essences Patel captured in the greenhouse. Like a composer, he assembles an olfactory symphony, a fragrance with more than 20 different chemicals. He puts the result onto a blotter, and the members of his team take a deep sniff. Nicoll shows me four drafts he worked on that morning. They are complex and abstract, not recognizable, and yet vivid, evocative, impressionistic; one in particular feels like the future. Like what the “new car” scent would smell like for a next-generation spacecraft.

Once a fragrance is created, it’s vigorously vetted. It gets passed between perfumers, scent design managers, representatives from the customer company, and test subjects—all together, hundreds of noses. And just because a senior perfumer thinks a scent delivers a “clean” feeling, it doesn’t necessarily mean everyday users will agree. So the testing facilities are built to replicate various experiences. There are rows of sinks to test personal-care products, dozens of cell-like rooms to test air fresheners, washing machines that will help researchers assess the cuddliness factor of fabric softeners, clotheslines to test detergents on hang-dried clothes, and functioning latrines to sample toilet cleaners. There’s even a place mysteriously referred to as “the stench room” to test malodors.

After hundreds of test washes and thousands of deep sniffs, a scent is finally ready to be released into the wilds of the supermarket aisle. All told, the whole process, from the capture of a cinnamon twig to the aroma on your fresh-pressed whites, takes about two years and the sweat of a huge number of people.

As I leave the IFF facility, my nose feeling a little bit like it’s about to fall off, I’m awestruck by the enormous amount of energy that’s spent on making the world smell better. Maybe it’s a little unsettling to know that consumer products have such a direct pathway into our emotional zones. Should I be skeptical the next time I put on a freshly laundered shirt and remember my childhood? Should I distrust my emotions when I polish a tabletop and feel uplifted by the lemony scent? Or should I be thankful that these mundane activities are filled with little bits of manufactured—but also very real—joy? After a long day in the lab, I’m too tired to wade into the ethical complexities of every flavor and scent that surrounds me. But I do know this: The intricate way IFF combines chemistry, biology, and psychology fills our world with meaning. And Patel’s mantra to stop and smell stays with me. A few days later, when I toss some clothes in the wash, I do exactly that, reminded that even in a simple dryer sheet, there’s a remarkable story.


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The Murderer Who Helped Make the Oxford English Dictionary
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William Chester Minor opened his eyes and gazed sleepily at the figure of a man looming over the foot of his bed. The intruder, who had been hiding in Minor’s attic during daylight, had slithered from the rafters, crept into the bedroom, and now, under the dark of night, was watching Minor as he dreamed. In his hands, the faceless man held metal biscuits slathered in poison.

The next morning, Minor woke up unscathed and found no trace of the intruder’s shenanigans. He checked his closet and crawled on his knees to look under his bed. Nobody was there. But that night, the trespasser returned. And the next night. And the next. Each night, Minor laid in his bed mortified.

By 1871, Minor needed a vacation. He left his lodgings in Connecticut and sailed for London in search of peace of mind and a good night’s sleep.

His harassers followed.

In fact, moving to England only placed Minor closer to his tormentors. Most, if not all, of the trespassers had been Irishmen, members of an Irish nationalist group called the Fenian Brotherhood that was not only hell-bent on ending British rule, but was equally hell-bent on exacting revenge on Minor. Minor envisioned these Irish rebels huddling under the cover of gaslit streets, whispering plans of torture and poisoning.

On multiple occasions, Minor visited Scotland Yard to report the break-ins to the police. The detectives would politely nod and scribble something down, but when nothing changed, Minor decided to handle the problem himself: He tucked a loaded pistol, a Colt .38, under his pillow.

On February 17, 1872, Minor woke to see the shadow of a man standing in his bedroom. This time, he did not lay still. He reached for his gun and watched the man bolt for the door. Minor threw off his blankets and sprinted outside with his weapon.

It was about two in the morning. It was cold. The streets were slick with dew. Minor looked down the road and saw a man walking.

Three or four gunshots broke the night’s silence. Blood pooled across the Lambeth cobblestones.

The man whose neck gushed with blood was not Minor’s intruder. His name was George Merrett; he was a father and a husband, and he had been walking to work at the Red Lion Brewery, where he stoked coal every night. Moments after police arrived at the scene, Merrett was a corpse and William Minor a murderer.

Minor explained to the cops that he had done nothing illegal: Somebody had broken into his room and he merely defended himself from an attack. Was that so wrong?

He did not know that, despite his sincerely-held beliefs, there had never been any intruders. Nobody had ever broken into his rooms or hidden in his ceilings or under his bed. The Irishmen, the plots, the poison—all of it had been imagined; none of it was real. George Merrett, however, was very much real. And now very much dead.

Seven weeks later, a court found William C. Minor, 37, not guilty on the grounds of insanity. Once a respected army surgeon who saved lives, he had suddenly been rejected as a deluded lunatic who took lives. He was sentenced to the Asylum for the Criminally Insane, Broadmoor.

An 1867 illustration of the
An 1867 illustration of the "Asylum for Criminal Lunatics, Broadmoor."
Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

One of England’s newest asylums, Broadmoor had already held a crew of tragically deluded criminal figures: There was Edward Oxford, who had attempted to shoot a pregnant Queen Victoria; Richard Dadd, a talented painter who had committed parricide, wanted to murder Pope Gregory XVI, and only consumed eggs and beer; and Christiana Edmunds—a.k.a. the “Chocolate Cream Killer”—a 19th century sweet-toothed spinoff of the Unabomber who, instead of packing up explosives, mailed her victims poisoned fruits and baked goods.

For many patients, getting institutionalized at an asylum such as Broadmoor marked the end of their useful lives. But not Minor. From the solitude of his cell in Broadmoor’s Cell Block Two, he’d become the most productive and successful outside contributor to the most comprehensive reference book in the English language: The Oxford English Dictionary.

 
 

There was a time when William C. Minor did not see phantoms lurking in his bedroom, a time when he did not soothe his paranoia with the reassurance of a loaded pistol. He had been a promising Yale-trained surgeon who loved to read, paint watercolors, and play the flute. That began to change, however, in 1864, when he visited the front lines of the American Civil War.

The Battle of the Wilderness may not have been the most famous or decisive battle of the war, but it was one of the most haunting to witness. Soldiers did more than bleed there—they burned.

The battle, as the name suggests, was not fought on scenic horizon-hugging farmland but in the dense, tangled undergrowth of a Virginia forest. On May 4, 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s Union army crossed the Rapidan River near Fredericksburg and encountered Confederate troops commanded by General Robert E. Lee. The belligerents exchanged fire. Smoke rose over the tree branches as dead leaves and thick underbrush smoldered and blazed.

A painting of the Battle of Wilderness.
By Kurz & Allison (Library of Congress), Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Soldiers who survived the battle would describe the forest fire in vivid detail. “The blaze ran sparkling and crackling up the trunks of the pines, till they stood a pillar of fire from base to topmost spray,” wrote one soldier from Maine [PDF]. “Then they wavered and fell, throwing up showers of gleaming sparks, while over all hung the thick clouds of dark smoke, reddened beneath by the glare of flames.”

“Ammunition trains exploded; the dead were roasted in the conflagration,” wrote then-Lieutenant Colonel Horace Porter. “[T]he wounded roused by its hot breath, dragged themselves along with their torn and mangled limbs, in the mad energy of despair, to escape the ravages of the flames; and every bush seemed hung with shreds of blood-stained clothing.”

More than 3500 people died. Minor had experience treating soldiers, but the Battle of the Wilderness was the first time he had seen patients fresh from combat. There were 28,000 total casualties; many of them were Irish immigrants. The famous Irish Brigade, widely considered among the army’s most fearless soldiers, was a primary combatant, and it’s likely that Dr. Minor treated some of its members.

But, as his family later insisted, it was Minor’s experience with one Irish deserter that would break his brain.

During the Civil War, the punishment for desertion was, technically, death. But the army usually treated deserters with a lighter punishment that was both temporarily painful and permanently shameful. During the Battle of the Wilderness, that punishment was branding: The letter D was to be burned into every coward’s cheek.

For some reason—perhaps a weird twist of wartime logic that suggested such a punishment was akin to a medical procedure—it fell to the doctor to carry out the branding. So, Minor was forced to thrust an orange-glowing branding iron into the cheek of an Irish soldier. According to court testimony, the horrific event shook Minor deeply.

If branding a man did make Minor snap, his mental illness fomented under the guise of normalcy. For two years, the doctor continued helping patients with great success—enough, in fact, to be promoted to captain. Then, around 1866, he began showing the first signs of paranoia while working on Governor’s Island in New York Harbor. After a group of crooks mugged and killed one of his fellow officers in Manhattan, Dr. Minor began carrying his military-provided handgun into the city. He also began acting on an uncontrollable urge for sex, slinking into brothels every night.

Minor had long been plagued by “lascivious thoughts.” The son of conservative missionaries and members of the Congregationalist Church, he had long felt guilty and anxious about what was, most likely, a sex addiction. The more people he slept with in New York—and the more venereal infections he developed—the more he began to look over his shoulder.

The army noticed. Around 1867, Dr. Minor was deliberately sent from the bordellos of New York to a remote fort in Florida. But it did not help his paranoia. It grew worse. He grew suspicious of other soldiers, and at one point, he challenged his best friend to a duel. Sunstroke made his mental state deteriorate further. In September, 1868, a doctor diagnosed him with monomania. One year later, another physician wrote, “The disturbance of the cerebral functions is ever more marked.” In 1870, the army discharged him and handed him a handsome pension.

With that money, Minor would buy a ticket to London, pay for rent and prostitutes, and ultimately buy rare and antiquarian books that would be shipped to his cell at Broadmoor, where he would eventually take a special interest in the development of what would become the world’s leading dictionary.

 
 

The Oxford English Dictionary is not your everyday dictionary. Unlike the official dictionary of the French language, the Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française, it’s not prone to finger-wagging, stuffily dictating what is and is not acceptable language. The OED simply describes words as they exist, from street slang to labcoat jargon. If a word has made a dent somewhere in an English-speaking culture, it is included.

Unlike your stereotypical glossary, which presents the current usage and meaning of a word, the OED tracks the word’s evolution: when it entered the language, how its spellings and pronunciations changed over time, when new shades of meaning emerged.

Take a word as mundane as apple. The OED lists 12 main definitions, and a total of 22 different “senses” (that is, shades of meaning). It traces the meaning we all recognize—apple as in fruit—to an Early Old English book called Bald’s Leechbk, where it’s spelled æppla. But the OED also tracks definitions for apple that other dictionaries might neglect: the tree itself (first appearing in 1500), or the wood of that tree (in 1815), or a gall on the stem of an unrelated plant (in 1668), a lump in somebody’s throat (in 1895), or a baseball (in 1902), or a shade of green (in 1923), or “all right” in New Zealand (in 1943), or the pupil of your eye (in the 9th century), or as a synonym for “guy” (in 1928), or a derogatory term for a Native American who has adopted white culture (in 1970). The dictionary even shows defunct meanings (from 1577 to the early 1800s, the word apple could be applied to any "fleshy Vessel" full of seeds). It’s also been used as a verb.

Each definition is supported with quotations, sentences from books and newspapers and magazines that show the word being used in that manner. Each definition has lists of quotations, listed in chronological order so that readers can see how that particular meaning of the word evolved.

Simon Winchester, in his brilliant best-selling book about William Minor’s contributions to the OED, The Professor and the Madman, explains the innovation beautifully: “The OED’s guiding principle, the one that has set it apart from most other dictionaries, is its rigorous dependence on gathering quotations from published or otherwise recorded uses of English and using them to illustrate the use of the sense of every single word in the language. The reason behind this unusual and tremendously labor-intensive style of editing and compiling was both bold and simple: By gathering and publishing selected quotations, the dictionary could demonstrate the full range of characteristics of each and every word with a very great degree of precision.”

Scouring obscure books for quotations of every word in the English language is no easy feat. It requires the help of hundreds of volunteers. In 1858, when the project was launched, the dictionary’s editors published a general request asking for volunteers to read books and mail in sentences that illuminated the meaning of a word, any word. Subeditors would sift through these slips and do the tedious job of reviewing these quotations and, if accepted, organizing them under the appropriate definition.

Quotation for
A quotation slip for the word "Ahoy"

The first attempt was a mess. Readers mailed more than two tons of suggestions, but the slips were poorly organized. (As one tale goes, all the words under the entire letter F or H were accidentally lost in Florence, Italy.) After 20 years, volunteer enthusiasm had dwindled and the project had lost momentum under the weight of its own ambitions. It wasn’t until Dr. James Murray, a philologist, took over that the modern OED began taking shape.

Murray was in all respects a linguistic genius. He knew in varying degrees Italian, French, Catalan, Spanish, Latin, Dutch, German, Flemish and Danish; he had a grasp of Portuguese, Vaudois, Provençal, Celtic, Slavonic, Russian, Persian, Achaemenid Cuneiform, Sanskrit, Hebrew, and Syriac; he also knew his way around Aramaic Arabic, Coptic, and Phoenician. (Among these talents, Murray was also expert on the sheep-counting methods of Yorkshire farmers and the Wawenock Indians of Maine.)

In 1879, Murray published a new appeal to magazines and newspapers asking the “English-Speaking and English-Reading Public” for volunteers. He laid out exactly what they needed.

“In the Early English period up to the invention of Printing so much has been done and is doing that little outside help is needed. But few of the earliest printed books–those of Caxton and his successors–have yet been read, and any one who has the opportunity and time to read one or more of these, either in originals, or accurate reprints, will confer valuable assistance by so doing. The later sixteenth-century literature is very fairly done; yet here several books remain to be read. The seventeenth century, with so many more writers, naturally shows still more unexplored territory. The nineteenth century books, being within the reach of every one, have been read widely: but a large number remain unrepresented, not only of those published during the last ten years, while the Dictionary has been in abeyance, but also of earlier date. But it is in the eighteenth century above all that help is urgently needed.”

In late 1879, William C. Minor, who had now been institutionalized at Broadmoor for over seven years, likely picked up his subscription of The Athenaeum Journal and read one of Murray’s requests. Minor looked around his cell. Towering to the ceiling were piles upon piles of books, obscure travel treatises published during the early 1600s such as A Relation of a Journey begun 1610 and Geographical Historie of Africa.

He cracked open a book and began his life’s work.

 
 

With sunlight came stability. Minor, with his long, tousled white beard, spent daylight hours reading and painting watercolors. He resembled a haggard Claude Monet impersonator. He spoke coherently and intelligently and, by all outward appearances, seemed to be in control of his thoughts and actions. He gave inmates flute lessons. He even grew remorseful for the murder he committed and apologized to George Merrett’s widow. He was at times obstinate—he once refused to step indoors during a snowstorm, barking at his attendants, “I am allowed to go out and can choose my own weather!”—but was otherwise the ideal inmate.

But at night, he was a disaster. He felt the gaze of young boys watching him, heard their footsteps as they prepared to smother his face with chloroform. He watched helplessly as interlopers barged into his room, shoved funnels into his mouth, and poured chemicals down his throat. He complained that invaders entered with knives and unspecified instruments of torture and operated on his heart. Others forced him into sordid acts of depravity. At one point, his harassers kidnapped him and carted him all the way to Constantinople, where they publicly tried to, in Minor’s words, “make a pimp of me!”

Minor tried to stop them. He barricaded his door with chairs and desks. He fashioned traps, tying a string to the doorknob and connecting it to a piece furniture (the logic being that if somebody cracked opened the door, the furniture would screech across the floor and act like a booby-trapped burglar alarm). He subscribed to engineering journals, possibly in hopes for better construction advice. But none of this helped his condition. One of Broadmoor’s doctors described him as “abundantly insane.”

The one and only object that likely occupied more space in Minor’s mind than his nighttime harassers was the Oxford English Dictionary. Not only did the job of curating quotations provide him a semblance of peace, it also offered him a chance at a different kind of redemption.

This was not, it turns out, the first time Minor had contributed to a major reference book. Back in 1861, when he was a first-year medical student at Yale, Minor had helped contribute to the Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language. Guided by Yale scholars, the book was the first major English dictionary edited by a team of trained lexicographers, and the 114,000-word edition published in 1864 would become the world’s largest mass-produced book at the time. Minor had assisted a professor of natural history, but when that professor became ill, the green medical student effectively took over. He was in way over his head. He made sloppy mistakes, prompting one critic to call Minor’s contributions “the weakest part of the book.”

The Oxford English Dictionary was a chance to make amends, and Minor took to the task with the zeal of a man who had nothing but time.

The editors of the dictionary had advised volunteers like Minor to focus on rare or colorful terms, eye-grabbing words like baboon or blubber or hubbub, and to ignore grammatical filler like and, of, or the. But many volunteers, eager to impress the philologists at Oxford, took the directions too far: They supplied more quotations for abstruse words such as, well, abstruse and few quotations for simple words such as, say, simple. The omissions frustrated Murray, who complained, “My editors have to search for precious hours for quotations for examples of ordinary words, which readers disregarded, thinking them not worthy of including.”

It didn’t help that the editors could never predict what would come through the door. Each day, they had to sift through and organize hundreds, sometimes thousands, of unexpected quotations. But Minor did not mail in quotations at random. What made him so good, so prolific, was his method: Instead of copying quotations willy-nilly, he’d flip through his library and make a word list for each individual book, indexing the location of nearly every word he saw. These catalogues effectively transformed Minor into a living, breathing search engine. He simply had to reach out to the Oxford editors and ask: So, what words do you need help with?

If the editors, for example, needed help finding quotations for the term sesquipedalia—a long word that means “very long words”—Minor could review his indexes and discover that sesquipedalia was located on page 339 of Elocution, on page 98 of Familiar Dialogues and Popular Discussions, on page 144 of Burlesque Plays and Poems, and so on. He could flip to these pages and then jot down the appropriate quotations.

Minor's index for 1687 book The Travels of Monsieur de Thevenot into the Levant, which includes keywords such as acacia and dance.
Minor's index for 1687 book The Travels of Monsieur de Thevenot into the Levant, which includes keywords such as acacia and dance.
Image courtesy of Oxford University Press and Simon Winchester. Reproduced by permission of the Minor family.

Oxford’s first request, however, was less exotic: It was art. The editors had discovered 16 meanings but were convinced more existed. When Minor searched his indexes, he found 27. The Oxford staff was overjoyed. As Winchester writes, “They knew now that down at this mysteriously anonymous address in Crowthorne, in all probability they had on tap, as it were, a supply of fully indexed words together with their association, citations, and quotations.” They made Minor the team’s go-to resource for troublesome words.

For the rest of the 1890s, Minor would send as many as 20 quotations a day to the subeditors in Oxford. His submissions had a ridiculously high acceptance rate; so high, in fact, that in the OED’s first volume—then called A New English Dictionary, published in 1888—James Murray added a line of thanks to “Dr. W. C. Minor, Crowthorne.”

Murray, however, had no idea about his contributor’s identity. “I never gave a thought to who Minor might be,” he said. “I thought he was either a practicing medical man of literary tastes with a good deal of leisure, or perhaps a retired medical man or surgeon who had no other work.”

In 1891, the two exchanged personal letters and agreed to meet at Broadmoor. When Murray arrived, any surprise upon seeing his top contributor confined inside an insane asylum appears to have quickly worn off: The two sat and talked in Minor’s cell for hours.

Murray would write, “[I] found him, as far as I could see, as sane as myself.”

 
 

It was a cool December morning when William C. Minor cut off his penis.

Unlike other patients at Broadmoor, Minor had been permitted to carry a pen knife in his pocket, which he had once used to cut the bound pages of his old first edition books. But it had been years since he had last put it to use, and, on a breezy day in 1902, Minor sharpened the blade, tightened a tourniquet around the base of his penis, and performed what the medical community might delicately describe as an autopeotomy.

It took one swift motion of the wrist. With his member dismembered, Minor calmly ambled downstairs to the gate of Block 2 and hollered for an attendant. “You had better send for the Medical Officer at once!” he yelled. “I have injured myself!”

The attendants were afraid something terrible like this could happen. Over the previous years, Minor had grown increasingly religious—a harmless development on its own—but his reawakened spirituality manifested itself in the most unfruitful ways: His insatiable sexual appetite, his shamefully libidinous past, and the sexually abusive specters that bedeviled him at nightfall had filled him with relentless guilt. “He believed there had been a complete saturation of his entire being with the lasciviousness of over 20 years, during which time he had relations with thousands of nude women, night after night…” reads Minor’s medical file. “But when he became Christianized he saw that he must sever himself from the lascivious life that he had been leading.”

Sever indeed.

Minor’s self-surgery did not make the nightly phantasms any less common, nor did it make his sexual urges any less intense. Before the incident, he had claimed that his visitors were forcing him to have sex with hundreds of women “from Reading to Land’s End,” and afterwards, he continued complaining of unwanted harassers. It was around this time, as Minor recuperated in the infirmary, that he stopped contributing to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Over the following years, Minor and Murray continued corresponding and remained warm acquaintances. In 1905, while Murray was on a trip to the Cape of Good Hope, Minor sent his devoted editor money to cover expenses. Five years later, Murray returned the favor by joining an effort to return the deteriorating man back to the United States. It worked. In 1910, after more than three decades at Broadmoor, Minor was transported back to an asylum in America. When he died 10 years later, in 1920, no obituary would mention his achievements. But you didn’t have to look very far to find them: All you had to do was crack open the pages of an Oxford dictionary.

In the preface of the fifth volume of the OED, James Murray published this word of thanks: “Second only to the contributions of Dr. Fitzedward Hall [one of the OED’s earliest major contributors], in enhancing our illustration of the literary history of individual words, phrases, and constructions, have been those of Dr. W. C. Minor, received week by week for words at which we are actually working.”

Elsewhere, Murray wrote: “The supreme position is … certainly held by Dr. W. C. Minor of Broadmoor, who during the past two years has sent in no less than 12,000 quots [sic] …. So enormous have been Dr. Minor’s contributions during the past 17 or 18 years, that we could easily illustrate the last 4 centuries from his quotations alone.”

Indeed, it’s hard to fathom the magnitude of Minor’s contributions. He provided material for entries as obscure as dhobi and as common as dirt. Today, the OED calls itself the “definitive record of the English language,” and it defines more than 300,000 words (more than half a million if you count word combinations and derivatives). It remains the authoritative reference for courtrooms, policy-makers, and etymology-nerds alike; linguists respect it as the barometer of where the language has been and where it may be going. Much of that credit goes to Minor.

Today, the stacks of books that he so preciously consulted are tucked away in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. At least 42 of his famed word indexes are protected inside the vaunted archives of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The words contained within are much like the man himself.

Minor was a surgeon, a veteran, and a murderer. He was a Yalie, a painter, and a danger to others. He was a sex addict, a reformed deist, and (most likely) a paranoid schizophrenic. The defining features of Minor’s character—what his life meant—shifted with time and could never be reduced to one single identification.

But it’d be nice to think that one definition would be crowned at the top of the page: “Greatest outside contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary.”

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Brigido Lara, the Artist Whose Pre-Columbian Fakes Fooled Museums Around the World
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In July 1974, Mexican authorities sent a man named Brigido Lara to jail. His crime wasn't a violent one, but it was serious nonetheless: Archaeologists from the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), a Mexican federal government bureau devoted to preserving the nation's heritage, claimed that Lara had been found with ancient ceramic artifacts looted from archeological sites in the state of Veracruz.

Lara was convicted of stealing and smuggling antiquities, but he insisted he wasn't a thief—and he could prove it. All he needed were tools and some clay brought to his jail cell. 

FORGING A CAREER

Lara grew up in Veracruz, in the village of Tlalixcoyán. While his parents were peasant farmers, Lara showed artistic talent—specifically, a knack for creating figurines from clay. Veracruz is home to many archaeological sites that date back to hundreds and thousands of years before the arrival of before Christopher Columbus, and the young Lara would often find ancient terra-cotta figurines in the fields and near rivers. He claims that by the time he was 9 years old, he was making versions of these artifacts using clay harvested from a local stream.

As Lara grew older, his skill set expanded. He reportedly taught himself how to prep and oven-fire local clay, and began making objects that mimicked those of several ancient Mesoamerican cultures—imitation Olmec pots, Maya polychrome vessels, and figurines in the Aztec, Mayan, and Totonac styles. He began specializing in replicating works by the Totonacs, a culture that flourished in central Veracruz until the Spanish Conquest introduced diseases that ravaged the communities. These figurines ranged in size from large to tiny, and often depicted mythological gods wearing masks and headdresses.

It's not entirely clear whether Lara began making these figurines for fun or profit. But according to the man himself, traveling dry-goods merchants had noticed his talents before he had even reached his teens. They accepted his "interpretations," as he called his early work, in lieu of cash—then sold them on the black market. Looters also came to Lara, asking him to fix and restore stolen works. Eventually, the artist wound up working in a Mexico City atelier that produced forgeries.

No detail was too tiny for Lara. He visited archaeological sites to study just-dug-up artifacts, and harvested clay from the surrounding region to sculpt exact likenesses. He later told Connoisseur magazine that for true authenticity, he even crafted his own primitive tools and stockpiled 32 grades of cinnabar—a reddish form of mercury used by the Olmec, an ancient Mesoamerican civilization that existed between 1200 BCE and 400 BCE—for precise pigmentation. He finished his works with a ancient-looking patina made from cement, lime, hot sugar water, urine, and other ingredients, and coated the final products with a seal made from dirt and glue.

But even though Lara was a stickler for the details, he also took artistic liberties with some of his "interpretations," adding elements that wouldn't have appeared on the original artifacts. Sometimes he would include a fanciful new detail from his imagination: a winged headdress, or one that writhed with serpents; a duck-billed mask, or a dramatic, lifelike pose.

Lara didn't consider himself a forger. "My style was born with me," he told The New York Times in 1987. "I didn't learn from anyone. I studied the pre-Columbian pieces in my town that came from the burial mounds, and I used the ancient techniques. I made these pieces and I am very proud."

But by young adulthood, he'd also become a businessman, selling his unsigned pre-Columbian replicas to middlemen who re-sold them to illegal art collectors both domestically and abroad. "I was aware that many buyers then sold them as authentic pre-Hispanic works," Lara admitted to Art & Antiques magazine years later.

COMING CLEAN

Lara's forgery career may have continued undetected had he and four of his buyers not been apprehended in 1974 and charged with trafficking in pre-Columbian works. The police didn't consider Lara an artist or a forger—his works looked so real, the authorities thought they'd been dug right out of the ground.

Lara was sentenced to 10 years in jail. To regain his freedom, he devised a plan: He asked law enforcement officials to grant his lawyer permission to bring him clay and art tools. Right there in his cell, Lara created replicas of the antiques he'd reportedly stolen. Experts from the INAH examined the earthen artworks, and declared them "genuine" ancient artifacts.

The stunt worked. Lara had proven he had made the works himself, not smuggled them out of ancient sites. Finally convinced of his innocence, prison officials released him in January 1975 after he'd served only seven months of his sentence.

After his release, Alfonso Medellín Zenil, head of the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, offered Lara a job. "Our policy is, when you can't beat them, hire them," Fernando Winfield Capitaine, then the museum's director, joked to Connoisseur.

The Museo de Antropología is home to an extensive collection of artifacts from Mexico's Gulf Coast produced by ancient indigenous peoples such as the Olmec, the Huastec, and the Totonac. Lara was hired to restore these works as well as to make replicas for the museum's gift shop.

But his career as a forger wasn't behind him quite yet.

REVELATIONS AND REFLECTIONS

In the early 1980s, Veracruz governor Agustín Acosta Lagunes began repatriating pre-Columbian works from abroad, expanding the collections at the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa. But when Lara saw some of these imported works, which had been purchased at Sotheby's auction house in New York City, he pronounced them fakes. He knew, he said, because he'd made many of them—including a figure of a male dancer that had been exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History’s “Ancient Art of Veracruz” exhibit in 1971.

Little by little, it emerged that Lara’s works might have made their way into pre-Columbian art collections around the world, including in prestigious museums such as the Dallas Museum of Art and the Saint Louis Art Museum, as well as in renowned private collections. Lara claimed credit for a 3-foot statue of the Mexican wind god Ehecatl in New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and out of approximately 150 works on display in the "Ancient Art of Veracruz" exhibit, asserted that he had made about a dozen.

Among the most notorious fakes Lara claimed to have created were three life-size ceramic sculptures in the Dallas Museum of Art that had once belonged to film director John Huston. "If you look at them closely, they are copies," Lara told the Associated Press in 1987. The works were attributed to the Totonac, and thought to have been made between 600 to 900 CE. Lara, however, claimed to have produced them during the 1950s: "The details are different than the originals … the details in the breast decorations, in the shoulder patches and so on," he said. "They are very different. They are originals of course—my own."

As news spread about Lara’s forgeries, the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Met in New York City, and the Dallas Museum of Art responded to the controversy by taking works off display. "All three museums acknowledged that many of the Veracruz-style objects in their collections were problematic," Matthew H. Robb, a former curator at the Saint Louis Art Museum who is now chief curator at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, tells Mental Floss.

Nobody knows exactly how Lara’s creations made their way into American museums (Lara blamed various high-profile art traffickers and dealers), but experts say they noticed when suspicious artifacts resembling his work first began popping up in the 1950s, as pre-Columbian art was becoming more and more popular among American art collectors. "They appeared out of nowhere, resembling nothing previously excavated," Edmund Carpenter, a New York archeologist, told The New York Times. "I saw some in New York, Los Angeles, Paris. Museums bought them, big collectors bought them. But nobody asked, 'How come a big find like this?'"

Bryan Just, a curator and lecturer on pre-Columbian art at the Princeton University Art Museum, chalks the phenomena up to scholarly ignorance. At the time, "there wasn't a lot of material available for comparison," he tells Mental Floss. "There are many regions, including Veracruz … where not a whole lot of archeology had been done. So for a lot of these [new] artworks, there weren't great sources to reference that answered questions like, 'How should this stuff really look?' And at that time, what had been excavated may not have been published."

There was also a shortage of experts to consult because the very idea of pre-Columbian relics as art was still relatively new. Connoisseurs only began collecting and selling these works in the early 20th century, and university scholars didn’t begin offering pre-Columbian art history courses until the 1950s, according to Just.

Not that collectors were necessarily consulting scholars in the first place: "If you were considering work that was offered to you by a dealer, you may have not wanted to consult a colleague who's an expert in that particular area if they work at a collecting institution," Just says. "You know, out of concern that they might snag it up before you do."

Fortunately, modern scholars have access to a greater body of knowledge about pre-Columbian art than their predecessors. "In retrospect, when I see Lara's stuff now, it seems pretty obvious to me that it's wrong," Just says. "It doesn't make sense when you think about it in terms of the broader context of what we know about these particular traditions."

But even today, it isn't always easy to ascertain what's real and what's not when it comes to pre-Columbian art. Experts sometimes use thermoluminescence tests, which involve removing a tiny piece of the object, grinding it up, heating it in a furnace, and observing how much light it emits. Ideally, this process can measure how long ago the clay was fired, but the results can be skewed if a work was recently exposed to extreme heat or had been cleaned.

Another issue is that "lots of these complicated ceramic sculptures are pastiches," Victoria Lyall, a curator of pre-Columbian art at the Denver Art Museum, tells Mental Floss. Artists "will use bits of older sculptures and put them back together. So you have to test a lot of different spots to really get a better sense of whether the entire piece is fake."

X-rays are a good way to spot a composite, but they interfere with thermoluminescence test results, putting conservationists between a rock and a hard place. Furthermore, clays from certain regions—like the clay Lara worked with in Veracruz—reportedly aren't as conducive to thermoluminescence testing.

A LEGACY OF LIES

Lara is now in his mid-70s. He no longer restores antiques at the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa full-time, but he still works as a consultant there, and he continues to make art under his own name. However, his legacy will forever be tied with the difficult history of pre-Columbian artwork. According to experts, it's possible that his artworks are still masquerading as artifacts around the world, and that he may have even helped shape modern scholars' perception of pre-Columbian art from Veracruz.

However, it's also feasible that Lara's stories are a composite of fact and fiction—just like his work. The artist claims to have made thousands of forgeries (one estimate places the number at more than 40,000 pieces), but some experts say it would have been nearly impossible for Lara—who was only in his 30s when he was arrested—to have produced so many works in just a few decades.

Plus, the timelines don't always add up: Lara "was about 8 years old at the time that the [Ehecatl statue] was supposedly manufactured and purchased by the Met," Lyall says.

Lara also claims to have been self-taught, but some have speculated that he's stretched the truth about his natural talent. He may have instead learned his trade by apprenticing at a young age in a Veracruz workshop that specialized in forgeries, theorizes Jesse Lerner, a professor of media studies at Pitzer College. Lara "denies all that, but it's hard to know … Just by the nature of his business, it's kind of shady," Lerner tells Mental Floss. (Lerner's 1999 documentary Ruins—a look at the history of Mexican archeology and the traffic in fakes—features an interview with Lara.)

This workshop might have sold both Lara's wares and similar works to international collectors through an established underground market. Such a scenario would explain the artist's familiarity with pieces in faraway collections, like the Met's statue, which he could describe in great detail despite likely having never produced it with his own hands. Because forgeries aren't exactly signed, it's difficult to know for sure which pieces are Lara's and which may have been made by other forgers.

Either way, Lara's frauds are a reminder to avoid believing everything you read—even if it's a label in a museum. And they offer another lesson, too.

"The types of ancient works that Lara and other forgers were imitating, they weren't intended as aesthetic objects," Lerner says. "They weren't for museums. They were representations of this whole world view of cosmic forces."

That makes forgeries like Lara's particularly problematic. "If the only way we can access that worldview is through these objects that survive, [Lara] is just adding bad data to the pool of data that we have available. He's messing up everyone's understanding of who these figures are representing, and how their universe was understood and functioned."

In other words, sometimes fakes don't just fool art lovers—they can also change our understanding of history.

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