Urine Flavour Wheels

IMAGE: Urine wheel from Epiphanie Medicorum, Ullrich Pinder (1506), via Oscillator.

Over at Oscillator, synthetic biologist Christina Agapakis (who will be speaking at Foodprint LA, and whom I had the pleasure of interviewing yesterday — of which, more in due course!) has posted this gorgeous urine wheel, designed to help medical practitioners create a sensory profile of a patient’s pee.

IMAGE: Urine wheel, via.

The colour, smell, and even taste of urine was used to both identify particular illnesses and provide patient prognoses, from Hippocrates to the Victorian era. The practice, called uroscopy or uromancy, was, according to the Doctor’s Review, “once the number-one way to diagnose disease — and predict the future.”

IMAGE: Urine wheel, via.

Sir Henry Wellcome’s 1911 overview of the history of uroscopy, The Evolution and Development of Urine Analysis, assembles a variety of urine flavour and fragrance notes from throughout history. From “antient Sanskrit works of medicine,” he culls a list of morbid urine varieties that include:

Iksumeha, cane-sugar juice urine.
The urine is very sweet, cold, sticky, opaque, like the juice of cane sugar.

Ksuermeha, potash urine.
The urine has the taste, smell, touch and colour of potash.

Sonitameha, urine containing blood.
The urine is of bad odor, hot, and tastes of salt, like blood.

Hastimeha, elephant urine.
The patient continuously passes turbid urine like a mad elephant.

Madhumeha, honey urine.
The urine is astringent, sweet, white and sharp.

The last is known today as the urine of diabetes mellitus. English physician Thomas Willis noted the same relationship in 1674, reporting that diabetic piss tastes “wonderfully sweet as if it were imbued with honey or sugar.”

IMAGE: Urine wheel woodcut, via.

Urine’s varying colours and tastes are due to an assortment of different inorganic salts and organic compounds that the body excretes as soluble waste, an explanation that was arrived at for the first time by Lorenzo Bellini using evaporation (De Urinis, 1734). As Agapakis explains,

Many diseases affect metabolism and many changes in metabolism can be detected in the urine […] including the very descriptively named Maple Syrup Urine Disease or Sweaty Feet Syndrome.

IMAGE: Urine wheel from Fasciculo Medicina, Johannes de Ketham (1493), via.

By 1881, sensory evaluation of urine was on its way out, replaced by chemical analysis (still used as a valuable diagnostic tool today). Urine wheels, which had been a standard inclusion in medical texts for centuries, were replaced by tables, test strips, and microscope slides. In an 1862 article for The Lancet, doctor William Roberts lamented the fact that his colleagues were no longer sniffing urine, arguing that:

The amount of information concerning a urine which may be obtained through the unaided senses of smell and sight far exceeds, both in precision and extent, what is usually supposed.

Today, the wheels are collected as medical curiosities: skeletons of an abandoned perceptual framework and poetic memorials to the lost art of urine appreciation.

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9 Comments

  1. Gill
    Posted September 14, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Disgusting. Anyway, smell and color can tell a lot, but even modern color charts may be misleading, so they are not very popular.

    You can be dehydrated and have clear urine. You can be well hydrated and have bright yellow urine from vitamin supplements.

  2. Kayla
    Posted January 31, 2013 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    I think that would be a horrible job to have!! I don’t think I could ever even taste my own pee, so having to drink someone elses piss would be sooo GROSS!!!!

  3. Posted November 9, 2012 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    Some Indians have a tendency to drink their own and cow urine to remain fit and healthy. Medical science is yet to prove that drinking urine is healthy sign anyway.

    M.Ibrahim Khan
    DUNYA, Karachi

  4. Jason B
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    Spin the wheel; urine luck.

  5. Georgia
    Posted October 23, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    Now that’s a gross job: whoever had to taste the urine!

  6. Aptos Garfield
    Posted October 23, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    I have some serious concerns about those stains on the top wheel.

  7. Fallopia Tuba
    Posted October 22, 2012 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    Some people still drink their own urine; David Jubb, of a store in the East Village (NYC) called Jubb’s Longevity, was an ardent proponent of it and drank his own urine every day.

  8. Posted October 21, 2012 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Ah, the sweet taste of diabetic piss!

  9. Kurt
    Posted October 19, 2012 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    re: the lost art of urine appreciation. Speak for yourself!

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