Tag Archives: ether

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

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

Dear 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?

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.”

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.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  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