But while plenty of websites were more than happy to reap the hits from the sensationally titled piece, without looking much deeper, one intrepid researcher decided to go in search of the fabled fungi. Christie Wilcox, on her ‘Science Sushi’ blog at Discover magazine, describes how she tracked the mushroom down, and answers the big question: what was her reaction when she smelt it?
For a moment, we both stood in silence, staring at the phallic fungus. Then he turned to me. “OK, so… I guess you should sniff it,” he said. I nodded. Slowly, I dropped to my knees. I closed my eyes and took a breath. I placed my hands in the soft mulch on either side of the fungus, and let the air out of my lungs. Then, I pushed my face next to its orange stalk and breathed in as deeply as I could.
My physiological reaction was immediate and strong. In less than a heartbeat I was on my feet, staggering backwards, gagging.
“Are you OK?” Jake asked, concerned, as he rushed to my side. The taste was in my mouth. It was in my throat. This disgusting, foul, rottenness—there are no words that adequately describe the vile stench. Tears formed in my eyes. I nearly vomited. Though I had read about how bad stinkhorns smell, I really wasn’t expecting something that… awful.
It was, hands down, the worst smell that’s ever violated my nostrils.
Beyond the quest to smell the mushroom, and her reaction, there’s plenty else of interest in the article. Most notably, how the short mention ended up in the journal in 2001 in the first place, and the background of the researchers involved. One of those, John Holliday, responded to questions about the paper rather weirdly:
…Holliday wasn’t eager to talk. “I hear so much crap about this. I saw some stuff written online last year. ‘This was never meant to be believed, it’s just a big hoax.’… Somebody sent me a link yesterday, it’s some lady I don’t even know, I have never heard of her or talked to her, and she is claiming that she talked to me and I told her that it was not legitimate… I don’t want to get myself or the company involved in any discussions of this, because it is too important for a whole bunch of reasons. Commercial reasons, scientific reasons. Reputational reasons. I am a pretty much a world renowned scientist…. When things like that come out that says this is a hoax, a lot of people that believe that. I don’t need that. I spend a lot of years getting to the point where I am. That is why I don’t really want to see anything about this.”
According to Holliday, he also is under a strict confidentiality agreement and therefore cannot discuss the study conducted in any way. He also implied that the research has continued since 2001, and that the pharmaceutical company he was working for (which he wouldn’t name but said was one of “the big ones”) was near to marketing the discovery. “If I was to say something like ‘We are about to release a blockbuster drug,’ and you go buy stock in this company, then you and I are both guilty of insider trading.”
There’s also some fascinating discussion about how mushrooms can mimic both the shape of a penis, and also the smell (“the compound spermine…was so named because it was first discovered in 1677 in human semen—and it has been detected in odorous fungi”) – and therefore whether any excitement or even orgasms in women might be via association with those factors. But Wilcox finds it an unlikely hypothesis.
Nevertheless, science is all about sample size (pardon the pun), so while Christie Wilcox was not impressed with the mushroom, further testing on more subjects may be required to get to the bottom of this one.