Barrie Drewitt is co-owner, COO, and chief scientist of Princeton Consumer Research, but he also has a much less glamorous job.
“I started sniffing armpits and feet predominantly about 15 years ago,” he says. “It took me about a year to get it up to an art form.”
Drewitt is one of the elite few people whose discriminating nostrils allow them to be odor judges. His job is to sniff armpits, breath, and feet, to rate how malodorous (stinky) they are on a scale of 1 to 10. He flies all over the world to do this for different companies and has become an international connoisseur of bad smells.
“There are differences in people’s breath here to the UK and Japan, for example,” he says. Curries and spices cause strong breath, but the rigorous smell tester must learn to ignore these odors along with the smell of pets and cigarettes, and focus only on the halitosis caused by bacterial growth in the mouth.
“You have to be able to differentiate between what you’re looking for in terms of bad odor,” he says. “You have to train your brain to differentiate between three or four different smells at once.”
He says the most challenging type of person to smell is a smoker. “Tobacco tends to overpower everything else,” he says. (Drewitt is also a smoker.)
Not everyone has this talent, and Princeton Consumer Research looks for potential odor judges within the ranks of its employees by asking them to smell pots of synthetic odors. A number of pots are lined up, and the sniffers have to rank them according to how powerful the smell is. If they are successful, they must repeat the test to prove the first time was not luck before moving on to becoming a full-fledged judge.
Drewitt had an inkling he might be a good smell tester because his mother had the exact same job when he was growing up in London, where his father was a builder. His mother was a nurse who worked in clinical research. “All my life, the slightest thing would give me a headache,” he says.
Drewitt’s husband, Tony, is co-owner of PCR. The couple has five children via surrogate mothers, and Barrie is famous in the U.K. for his advocacy of alternative parenting. Given the genetic component of odor judging, it’s possible any of the five children could follow in his footsteps. In any case, the talent of smelling is a rare one.
“From a group of 10 we initially start training, only two or three make it through,” Drewitt says. “But those guys will literally travel the world and go around sniffing.”
The smell tests are designed to eliminate embarrassment for the test subjects. The smelling is done through a screen, and via a cardboard tube, so that the judges never see who they are smelling, and the smell-ees never see their scores.)
Smell testers are also called upon to undertake more pleasant tasks too, such as evaluating the smells of scented soaps or perfumes, and picking out the best ones.
Although smelling malodorous body parts may seem like a hard way to make a living, Drewitt says it’s not as bad as one might think. “It’s a strong odor, but you kind of psychologically handle it,” he says.
That’s not to say smell test training is without repercussions. “Once you’ve been trained to smell odor, you can’t help judging people. I’ll be sitting on the [subway], judging the people next to me from 1 to 10.”