Benjamin Franklin Takes On the Wind

Conflict: Uncategorized

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis

Among many other things, U.S. “Founding Father” Benjamin Franklin was a musician, printer, inventor, scientist, political theorist, politician, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. But Franklin was also two more things—an author and a satirist—which led to him writing a certain essay that would have really made a stink in the scientific community had he ever made it public.

In 1781 Franklin was staying in France as the U.S. Ambassador. During his stay he heard news that the Royal Academy at Brussels was calling for scientific papers, offering prizes and awards for the best essays they received. Franklin was annoyed, believing that this would provide an opportunity for scientists to pound out more useless, pretentious scientific papers that were out of touch with the needs of the common man. Rather than giving itself airs, science should be kept practical and useful.

To vent his discontent, Franklin wrote a letter to the Royal Academy in which much of the content focused on one universal point of dissatisfaction: smelly gas. Yes—stinkers, flatulence, toots. This, Franklin wrote, was what should be the focus of the Academy:

It is universally well known, That in digesting our common Food, there is created or produced in the Bowels of human Creatures, a great Quantity of Wind.That the permitting this Air to escape and mix with the Atmosphere, is usually offensive to the Company, from the fetid Smell that accompanies it.

He urged that science be used to find a solution for the smell, so that humans need not suffer the discomfort—and probable disease—that comes of trying to restrain the “wind” from escaping. He suggests the discovery of  “some Drug wholesome and not disagreable to be mix’d with our common Food, or Sauces, that shall render the natural Discharges of Wind from our Bodies, not only inoffensive, but agreable as Perfumes.”  This would be an excellent solution; everyone could break wind in company without embarrassment, just as they might spit or blow their noses, and as an added bonus it would smell simply lovely.

Since it was meant as a joke to poke fun at the snobbery of academia, the letter was never given to the Royal Academy. Franklin sent it to a friend who would enjoy the laugh, British Philosopher Richard Prince, and gave no more thought to the whole stinky business.

You can go here to read the whole letter by Benjamin Franklin online, and find more on this story here. You can also use this search on Fold3 to find other (more serious) letters by this famous polymath, or check out more on Ben Franklin’s life here.