Joy Milne’s husband, Les, was about 35 years old when she started suspecting he wasn’t keeping up with the demands of good hygiene. Her husband had a “musky” smell about him.
As Milne told the BBC:
“We had a very tumultuous period, when he was about 34 or 35, where I kept saying to him, ‘you’ve not showered. You’ve not brushed your teeth properly.’ It was a new smell — I didn’t know what it was. I kept on saying to him, and he became quite upset about it. So I just had to be quiet.”
Years later, Milne was in a room full of people when she detected the exact same smell. What the strangers in the room shared in common with her husband was they all had Parkinson’s disease.
Milne’s husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s ten years after Milne had detected the “strange smell” when he was close by, according to U.S. News and World Report. Milne, however, didn’t know she had been smelling her husband’s illness until shortly before his death in 2015, when Milne noticed the distinct smell while attending a Parkinson’s support group with her husband.
As Milne told the BBC:
“And my nose just thought, ‘wow.'”
According to the BBC, scientists confirmed the 67-year-old Scottish woman’s ability after she managed to correctly identify people suffering from Parkinson’s by smelling their clothing.
Milne had told scientists at a conference about smelling a change in her husband’s odor before his diagnosis and was later administered a simple test: Researchers at Edinburgh University gave Milne 12 shirts to smell, six having been worn by people with Parkinson’s and six worn by people without. Milne had to identify which shirts belonged to each group.
Milne correctly identified all seven shirts of those with Parkinson’s; three months after the study, one of the volunteers from the control group, who didn’t have Parkinson’s at the time, was later diagnosed with the disease.
Dr. Tilo Kunath from Edinburgh University told the BBC:
“She was telling us that this individual had Parkinson’s before he knew, before anybody knew.
So then I really started to believe her, that she could really detect Parkinson’s simply by odour that was transferred on to a shirt that the person with Parkinson’s was wearing.”
Milne is now working with scientists to isolate the molecules comprising the scent she is able to smell as a way to diagnose Parkinson’s disease earlier in patients. Though there is no cure for the nervous system disorder, the Mayo Clinic reports, early diagnosis and early treatment can lead to improved patient quality of life and treatment cost savings, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
As for what Parkinson’s “smells” like, Milne explained to the BBC:
“It’s heavy, thick musk smell. Very different.”
“People with Parkinson’s and their carers and their families will tell you that smell is there. I smelled it 10 to 12 years before Les was diagnosed. As the Parkinson’s got worse, the smell got worse. It became just part of him, but I with my sensitive sense of smell I could smell it all the time and it became quite uncomfortable really, but I had the sense not to nag too much.”
According to the BBC, Milne’s last promise to her dying husband was to use her gift of smell to help others suffering from the disease. Watch the BBC’s report below: