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.