Quote Origin: Secret of the Universe: A Strong Smell of Turpentine Prevails Throughout

Bertrand Russell? William James? Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.? Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.?

Question for Quote Investigator: The eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell discussed visions and experiences in his major opus “A History of Western Philosophy” in 1945. Russell noted that subjective experiences were not always reliable:1

William James describes a man who got the experience from laughing-gas; whenever he was under its influence, he knew the secret of the universe, but when he came to, he had forgotten it. At last, with immense effort, he wrote down the secret before the vision had faded. When completely recovered, he rushed to see what he had written. It was

“A smell of petroleum prevails throughout.”

What seems like sudden insight may be misleading, and must be tested soberly when the divine intoxication has passed.

Can you determine who experienced this eccentric revelation?

Reply from Quote Investigator: QI believes that this passage can be traced back to an episode described by the prominent physician and author Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. who on June 29, 1870 delivered an address before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University. The New York Tribune reported on the speech two days after it occurred. Holmes discussed his experiments with ether and not nitrous oxide, and the curious insight he wrote down was about “turpentine” and not “petroleum”. Boldface has been added to excerpts:2

A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout.

Here is an extended excerpt from the 1870 lecture of Holmes which was published in 1879:3

I once inhaled a pretty full dose of ether, with the determination to put on record, at the earliest moment of regaining consciousness, the thought I should find uppermost in my mind. The mighty music of the triumphal march into nothingness reverberated through my brain, and filled me with a sense of infinite possibilities, which made me an archangel for the moment. The veil of eternity was lifted. The one great truth which underlies all human experience, and is the key to all the mysteries that philosophy has sought in vain to solve, flashed upon me in a sudden revelation. Henceforth all was clear: a few words had lifted my intelligence to the level of the knowledge of the cherubim. As my natural condition returned, I remembered my resolution; and, staggering to my desk, I wrote, in ill-shaped, straggling characters, the all-embracing truth still glimmering in my consciousness. The words were these (children may smile; the wise will ponder): “A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Immediately after the text above, Holmes included another example of a drug-induced declaration.4 This one was facilitated by nitrous oxide instead of ether, and it was published many years earlier in 1800:5

Sir Humphry Davy has related an experience, which I had forgotten when I recorded my own. After inhaling nitrous-oxide gas, he says, “With the most intense belief and prophetic manner, I exclaimed to Dr. Kingslake, ‘Nothing exists but thoughts. The universe is composed of impressions, ideas, pleasures, and pains.’”

In 1870 Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. lectured to the Phi Beta Kappa Society about his experiment with ether, and by 1879 his talk was published as discussed above.

In 1896 “The American Practitioner and News” reprinted a story from Health magazine about what “Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes once told a dinner party.” The outline matched the tale above, but the psychoactive agent was chloroform instead of ether or nitrous oxide. Also, the wording of the secret is slightly different:6

So placing himself in his armchair, with pen, ink, and paper at hand, he inhaled the vapor of chloroform. As drowsiness stole over him, and just as unconsciousness was impending, those sublime and marvelous thoughts arose, and by a vigorous effort he seized his pen and wrote, he knew not what, for before he had finished he fell back unconscious. When he awoke, with trembling anxiety he turned to the sheet of paper on which he could read in scrawling characters, but quite legible, the secret of the universe, written in the words, “A strong smell of turpentine pervades the whole.”—Health.

In 1940 the mass-circulation periodical Reader’s Digest printed a version of the anecdote with a variant revelation. In this version Oliver Wendell Holmes was given anesthetic for a small operation, and his “mind teemed with thoughts of transcendental beauty.” He was unhappy that he was unable to record these thoughts. But a few days later he tried again with “another dose of ether”:7

The ether was administered, and at the first suggestion of hand-waving, pencil and paper were placed in his fingers. Instantly he wrote a short sentence, and sank back, an expression of ineffable joy upon his face. He had set down these words: “Oh, Lord, what a Stench!” — Bob Davis in N.Y. Sun

In 1941 the Milwaukee Journal printed a column titled “Wisecracks of the Famous”8 which began with the line: “The late Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes underwent a minor operation a few years before his death.” The article followed the outline of the anecdote given in the Reader’s Digest in 1940. The final phrase was the same: “Oh, Lord, what a Stench!” But the two tales diverged sharply on one point. The main character in “Wisecracks of the Famous” was Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. who served on the Supreme Court. He supposedly wrote the final phrase given above in this version. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., his father, was a physician and not a jurist.

In 1945 Bertrand Russell published “A History of Western Philosophy” and it contained a version of the anecdote with the line: “A smell of petroleum prevails throughout.” The details were given in the original query.

The CogPrints electronic archive contains an article by Stevan Harnad titled “Creativity: Method or Magic?” The philprints website indicates that the paper was published in 2007.9 The paper refers to Bertrand Russell and William James, and it presents a slightly altered phrase that is sometimes used in more recent times:

The smell of petroleum pervades throughout.

In conclusion, QI hypothesizes that the tale reported by Bertrand Russell in 1945 was a metamorphosed version of the testimony given by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. in 1870. However, it is conceivable that two different people reported oddly similar drug-induced judgments about the universe.

Acknowledgement: An individual using the handle “joculum” investigated this quotation and posted a valuable analysis here on LiveJournal in 2008. The address by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. was located by joculum before QI found it independently.

Update History: On June 13, 2024 the format of the bibliographical notes was updated.

  1. 1945, A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, Book One, Part II, Chapter XV: The Theory of Ideas, Page 123-124, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper in 1976 paperback reprint: A Touchstone Book: Simon and Schuster) ↩︎
  2. 1870 July 01, New York Daily Tribune, [New York Herald-Tribune], Harvard: Meeting of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, Page 5, Column 1, [Quote in Column 2], New York. (Genealogybank) ↩︎
  3. 1879, Mechanism in Thought and Morals: An Address Delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University, June 29, 1870, by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Quote Page 46-47, Houghton, Osgood and Company, Boston. (Google Books full view) link ↩︎
  4. 1879, Mechanism in Thought and Morals: An Address Delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University, June 29, 1870, by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Quote Page 46-47, Houghton, Osgood and Company, Boston. (Google Books full view) link ↩︎
  5. 1800, Researches, Chemical and Philosophical; Chiefly Concerning Nitrous Oxide, or Dephlogisticated Nitrous Air, and Its Respiration by Sir Humphry Davy, Page 488-489, Printed for J. Johnson, St. Paul’s Church-Yard, London. (Google Books full view) link ↩︎
  6. 1896 November 28, The American Practitioner and News, Abstracts and Selections, Volume 22, Number 11, Page 428, John P. Morton & Company, Publishers, Louisville, Kentucky. (Google Books full view) link ↩︎
  7. 1940 May, The Reader’s Digest, “Masterpieces of the Subconscious”, Page 104, Volume 36, [Acknowledgement to Bob Davis in the New York Sun], The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on microfilm) ↩︎
  8. 1941 December 19, The Milwaukee Journal, Wisecracks of the Famous, Page 4, Column 2, [GNA Page 51], Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Google News Archive) ↩︎
  9. 2007 “Creativity: Method or Magic?” by Stevan Harnad, In Henri Cohen & Brigitte Stemmer (eds.), Consciousness and Cognition: Fragments of Mind and Brain. Elsevier Academic Press. (Accessed online at cogprints.org and philpapers.org on March 30, 2012) link link ↩︎

6 replies on “Quote Origin: Secret of the Universe: A Strong Smell of Turpentine Prevails Throughout”

  1. A version of this quotation seems to have made it into the psychedelic music culture of the mid-1960s. There is a track by a band called the Gonn, entitled “Blackout of Gretely,” which begins with the singer speaking the phrase, “The universe is permeated with the odor of kerosene.” In the same era, Peter Tork of The Monkees shouted this version of the phrase as a non sequitur during one of the program’s backstage-interview sequences. Until I read your column, I had no idea this curious exclamation had its roots (evidently) in the nineteenth century.

  2. Stevan Harnad: Thanks for visiting the QI website and thanks for the compliment. I have updated the post above to include a pointer to the 2008 post at LiveJournal by joculum that identified the address by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. as the likely origin of the quotation.

    Special thanks for your farsighted pioneering work in open access academic publication and electronic journals!

  3. One of the old US presidents woke up one morning with the feeling of having just discovered the secret of the universe, which was, “the whole is permeated with the smell of turpentine.” That’s the origin I heard.

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