Share Share
Tweet Tweet
Forward Forward
Harvard University Press
Inside the Perfumed World of Paris
Elixir by Theresa Levitt
In Elixir: A Parisian Perfume House and the Quest for the Secret of Life, Theresa Levitt tells the story of two scientific outcasts whose work rewrote the boundary between life and nonlife—and in so doing, takes us on a sensory journey through nineteenth-century Paris.

In an interview, we asked Levitt about some of the unexpected things she discovered while writing this fascinating history.

What first brought you to writing a book about the history and chemistry of perfume?
I had been interested for a while in the question of whether there is anything “special” about life. People often think that once you get the development of modern chemistry, everyone accepts that living and non-living things are made up of the same matter, and there is no difference between them. But I was seeing plenty of people in the nineteenth century who remained convinced there was a fundamental distinction (and who ultimately turned out to be right!). Two of my favorites were a grouchy, reclusive physicist named Jean-Baptiste Biot and a down-trodden, oft-ignored chemist named Auguste Laurent. One day, I noticed that both of them mentioned working with a certain perfumer, Edouard Laugier. I decided to try pulling on that thread to see who he was, and it revealed a whole world where aroma and essential oils were at the center of one of the liveliest scientific debates of the time.
“Almost impossible to put down… A whirlwind tour from the point of view of pomades, perfumes, and eau de cologne.” —Science

I think when people hear the word “perfume,” they sometimes think of an esoteric, even frivolous, luxury product. But it was really part of one of humankind’s oldest endeavors: to capture and preserve the ephemeral qualities of plants. And its pursuit helped revise our understanding of life itself.   Read more of our interview »

Buy the book »
© 2023 Harvard University Press. All rights reserved.

Want to change how you receive these emails?
You can update your preferences or unsubscribe from this list.