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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Smelling the Colors

Willetta Huggins was a remarkable young woman.

At the age of 14 she lost both her sight and her hearing, but after only two years of work she was able to distinguish an amazing amount using her remaining senses. For example, she learned how to design and make her own clothing by touch. She even learned to 'hear' people speaking by feeling the vibrations that their voices made. But her most amazing skill was identifying colors by smell.

Huggins was finicky about what she wore and continued to use a sewing machine and do embroidery after losing her hearing and sight. While perfecting these skills, she also made the remarkable leap of being able to distinguish between the colors of things by their smell. According to the press, her ability to do this was tested and demonstrated many times, including when she had the chance to meet Helen Keller. While sharing stories about themselves, Willetta demonstrated her ability by sniffing Keller's clothing and accurately describing the colors of the different patches of fabric.

Willetta claimed to have learned this in a sewing class where the teacher would hand her different materials and tell her the colors, and she would smell each one until she could distinguish among them all. She told Keller that she was able to distinguish colors in many materials, except for 'in beads and glazed pottery.' She said it had only taken her around two months to learn the skill.

Obviously, this strikes most of us today as scientifically impossible. But follow the links below to see the contemporary accounts. And if you know of a scientific explanation, please drop us a note through the link at the foot of this page.

'Blind girl finicky about her clothes; makes her own dresses.' Wisconsin State Journal, Nov. 7, 1921

'Helen Keller Meets Wonder Girl of Janesville School in Half-Hour Talk Here' Wisconsin State Journal, January 21, 1922.

'Scientific tests prove blind girl can hear with fingers, see with nose.' Wisconsin State Journal, April 1, 1923

:: Posted in Bizarre Events on July 7, 2011
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