This Woman Can Smell Diseases Before Doctors Can Find Them

By: Kate Row | Published: Aug 07, 2023

Not all superheros wear capes. Super strength, the ability to fly, and mind reading would all be pretty incredible powers. But one woman is using her nose superpower to actually save lives.

Joy Milne is a real life superhero that is using her powers for good. Her amazing sense of smell allows her to actually sniff out diseases. This incredible woman could smell her husband’s Parkinson’s disease a decade before he was diagnosed. Now she works with doctors to diagnose other illnesses.

Joy Milne was completely oblivious to her gift for years

Joy probably could have gone her entire life without knowing she had a super-sniffer. She met her husband, Les Milne, in high school when she was 16 and he was 17. She recalls when they danced at a party and she was attracted to his smell.



She explained that he had “a lovely male musk smell”. This was not out of the ordinary, as everyone finds themselves more or less attracted to certain scents. Later, Joy would realize this was her first indication of having a keen sense of smell.


Her husband’s smell changed

The two got married and had 3 children together. They had a very happy life together. Les became a doctor and Joy became a nurse. After being married for over 10 years, Joy noticed an immediate change in her husband.


The Independent

She explains that one day he suddenly smelled different. She said his normal scent was tainted by a “nasty yeast smell”. Joy figured it must just be a smell from the hospital at first, but the smell continued to grow stronger over the next weeks and months.

She was the only one that could smell this scent

Joy started to nag her husband, asking him to shower more frequently, because the smell was growing so strong. Eventually, Les started getting frustrated with Joy’s requests because he, himself, could not smell what she was talking about.


The Telegraph

To prevent them from getting into more arguments about it, Joy stopped making comments. She decided she would just have to put up with it. If it didn’t bother him or anyone else around them, it must just be her problem.

More than his smell began to change

Les’s scent was just the first thing to change. Joy started to grow worried when her husband’s personality began to shift. The once patient man she fell in love with became moody and less tolerant.



As Les entered his early 40s, he had very few of the qualities Joy loved about him when they first met in their teenage years. The couple was now fighting regularly. One night, things really came to a head.

The diagnosis

Joy was shocked to wake up to her husband attacking her. She explained that he was “sort of screaming and shaking [her], but he was totally oblivious of it”. They came to find he was obviously in some sort of nightmare.


After the incident Joy insisted that they go to the doctor to see what was going on. He was so different from the man she met that she worried he had a brain tumor. The doctor revealed the reason for Les’s dramatic change in behavior. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.


Connecting the sense of smell to the illness

It wasn’t until Les and Joy attended a support group for Parkinson’s disease that Joy finally made the connection. When they walked into the room, Joy was immediately overwhelmed by the smell that she was confronted with.

She recognized the musty smell as being the same one she smelled on Les years prior. Also, she noticed that some people smelled stronger than others. This was her first indication that a disease could have a specific scent.


The significance of the discovery

Les being a doctor and Joy being a nurse meant they immediately knew the significance of this discovery. It was a scientific discovery that would change the course of illness diagnoses from here on out.


If she could smell the disease, she might be able to help people get treatment before it progressed beyond the point of medicine being able to help. They approached a Parkinson’s researcher named Tilo Kunath with their discovery.


They performed an experiment to test her skills

A group of people with Parkinson’s and a group without were asked to wear t-shirts home and wear them overnight. Joy was asked to smell each shirt and decided if the person had the disease.


She was 100% accurate. She could identify if the person had the disease and could even tell if it was an early or late stage of the disease. They published the paper in 2019 that identified certain compounds which contribute to Joy’s ability to smell the illness.


Opening doors to new research

This discovery opened doors to new realms of research that we didn’t know were possible. The goal is obviously to diagnose Parkinson’s disease early and introduce therapies that will reduce the negative side effects of the nasty disease.


If we can catch it early enough, we can improve the lives of those who suffer from the disease. The end goal is to have a cure, of course. And this research is the first step towards this.


There is some evidence to support Joy’s ability

Previous evidence shows that odors can be connected to certain disorders and illnesses. The problem with using smell as a signal of disease is that smell is influenced by so many other factors.


There are still many unanswered questions regarding the use of smell as an indicator of disease. Scientists agree that more studies would need to be conducted to confirm that scent can be used to diagnose illness.


Dogs can detect Parkinson’s

While research is still being completed to identify if other people can smell Parkinson’s disease, other similar scientific discoveries are being made. In 2016, researchers started to experiment and see if dogs could smell Parkinson’s as well.

Parkinson_s life

Dogs have much stronger sniffers than we do, so it came as no surprise that they could also smell out the illness. Scientists and researchers are now in the process of training dogs to be able to identify Parkinson’s.


Joy is working with researchers

While it is a relatively new discovery, Joy is now working with researchers all over the world to put her nose to good use. While the research is still developing, they’ve already made some amazing discoveries.

Smithsonian magazine

Since working with various researchers, Joy has discovered that she can sniff out more illnesses than Parkinson’s disease. She can identify the smell of tuberculosis, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and diabetes.


Les passed away

After more than 20 years of fighting his disease, Les passed away. Joy noticed that it was originally hard for Les to talk about his diagnosis, but it became easier when they were speaking about it for the purpose of research.

Source: BBC


Joy recalls that the last thing the two talked about was her ability. He made her promise that she would continue their research and use her nose for good! Joy is happy to fulfill his request and has continued her research with scientists to help identify diseases.


Joy is inspiring new science

Since the discovery of Joy’s miraculous ability, researchers have been trying to build a device that can do the same. Ideally, this device would diagnose Parkinson’s (and other diseases) through odor compounds on the skin.

Source: daily mail

Daily Mail

The development of this “e-nose” could be a huge step in the right direction for disease diagnosis. Also, while there is no cure for Parkinson’s, an early diagnosis can dramatically improve a person’s quality of life.