Skip to Content

Joy Milne, The Woman who Can Smell Parkison’s Disease

Over the years, we’ve grown accustomed to watching movies and reading books or comics full of characters with superpowers. Superheroes are so common in the Marvel and DC universes their superpowers are pretty much taken for granted.

Superpowers aren’t restricted to films and books, though. There are people and animals in the real world that have been proven to have a heightened sense that enables them to discern things others of their species can not. 

Studies have shown that African elephants have a sense of smell superior to any other mammal on Earth.

While a dog’s sense of smell is inferior to that of an elephant, they can sniff out anything and everything from missing people to hidden drugs and cancer once trained.

 A heightened sense of smell is not so common in humans, but it does exist. Joy Milne is proof of that.

Joy Milne’s innate, and quite possibly unique, sense of smell allows her to detect Parkinson’s Disease before it has developed sufficiently for a medical diagnosis.

Joy Milne with her husband Les.

What is Parkinson’s Disease?

Parkinson’s Disease is a debilitating illness in which areas of the brain begin to degenerate.

It causes muscle stiffening, body tremors, difficulties with speech, memory loss and insomnia. Ironically, in some cases, it can cause anosmia, the loss of the sense of smell.

It is difficult for medical practitioners to diagnose in its early stages as symptoms present differently from person to person. It is a disease for which there are only treatments as a cure has yet to be found.

Who Is Joy Milne?

Joy Milne is a British woman from Perth in, Scotland. During her career as a nurse, Joy realised that the sick people she cared for emitted different odours depending on what they were suffering from. 

She dismissed it as normal at the time, not knowing she was the only person who could smell it.

Around the time her husband was thirty years old, Joy sensed a change in his body odour. Again, she thought nothing of it. Sadly, when he was in his forties, her husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

At this stage, Joy still hadn’t connected his change of body odour to the disease and didn’t until they attended a Parkinson’s support group together.

While among other people who were also suffering from Parkinson’s, Joy realised they all also gave off the same musty smell her husband did.  

How Does Joy Milne Smell Parkinson’s?

To have such an acute sense of smell as Joy Milne has is unusual. Joy has hereditary hyperosmia, the medical term for a heightened sense of smell. 

It is extremely rare, and because of its rarity, there has been little scientific investigation into its probable causes. Any research that has been done on the subject has, so far, had inconclusive results.

When Professor Perdita Barran, a scientist at the University of Manchester specialising in chemistry and biomarkers, first heard of Joy’s skill for smelling Parkinson’s, she was sceptical. 

While the professor hasn’t investigated Joy’s sense of smell, she, along with Joy, have studied what it is Joy smells on the bodies of people with Parkinson’s.

The Science Behind The Smelling

After Professor Barran had done some initial research into whether Joy really could detect the presence of Parkinson’s using her sense of smell, she became convinced Joy was telling the truth. 

The primary tests involved Joy sniffing garments. Some had been worn by people who had already been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and the rest by people who didn’t have the disease. 

During the tests, Joy indicated all but one correctly. Nine months after the first tests were conducted, the gentleman who was in the unaffected group but Joy had declared him positive was formally diagnosed with Parkinson’s. 

Joy Milne smelling a shirt to sense if Parkinson’s is present.

Needless to say, Professor Barran was more convinced than ever that Joy Milne’s superpower was real and began more in-depth research.

Professor Barran believed the odour Joy could smell was contained in the sebum their bodies secreted.

She took samples of various sufferers’ sebum with a Q-tip, transferred the sebum to a special paper and then used a mass spectrometer to analyse the lipids in the sebum. 

She discovered the metabolites (molecules which are the end product of metabolism) in the swabs taken from those with Parkinson’s were different to those in someone without it. It was that difference which was creating the odour Joy could smell.

What Difference Has Joy Milne’s Ability Made?

Joy being able to identify the presence of Parkinson’s Disease with her sense of smell hasn’t brought a cure any closer. What it has done, though, is helped to make considerable advances in diagnostic methods.

Joy Milne on Good Morning Britain

Diagnosing Parkinson’s has always been a major conundrum for medical practitioners. The disease has around forty individual symptoms.

Those symptoms don’t all manifest simultaneously, and the early symptoms in one person can be completely different from those in another.

As research into the odour created by Parkinson’s continues, ways are being devised to produce reliable testing methods for the disease.

It’s something that wasn’t available before, as the only existing tests were lengthy, complex, and expensive neurological ones made in MRI scanners. 

Soon, test swabs will be taken from patients that can be analysed faster and more economically in laboratories.

The discovery of the odour produced by Parkinson’s made by Joy Milne and the ongoing research into developing new testing methods means the disease will be diagnosed much earlier.

While they won’t get cured, those affected will be able to have earlier treatments, which will help maintain their quality of life longer.

Where Is Joy Milne Now?

Joy’s husband succumbed to complications of the disease and died in 2015. Since then Joy, who is now in her 70s, has become involved in Parkinson’s related organisations and support groups like Parkinson’s UK and PD Avengers. 

She also continues to assist in research not only for Parkinson’s but for other diseases too.

Joy Milne’s unique gift and the way she has used it means she’s given hope to future sufferers of Parkinson’s. And that’s what having a superpower should really be all about.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *