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The Urine Wheel

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I recently saw an image that perfectly encapsulates many of my current interests, including odor and flavor mapping, the senses in scientific analysis, medieval ideas about health and disease, body fluids, and metabolic profiling. The Urine Wheel was used for diagnosing diseases based on the color, smell, and taste of the patient’s urine in the early 16th century:

Urine Wheel

The Urine Wheel for diagnosing metabolic diseases, from Epiphanie Medicorum by Ullrich Pinder in 1506

Many diseases affect metabolism and many changes in metabolism can be detected in the urine. For example, diabetics will excrete sugar in their urine–sometimes enough sugar that it can be fermented into whisky. There are many other diseases that change the smell of a person’s urine, including the very descriptively named Maple Syrup Urine Disease or Sweaty Feet Syndrome, now much more likely to be diagnosed by electronic sensor arrays than actually tasting the urine. I’m fascinated by all the ways that people categorize and arrange information about flavors and odors, as wheels or otherwise, and the ways that those arrangements affect our perception, consumption, and even diagnosis.

Christina Agapakis About the Author: Christina Agapakis is a biological designer who blogs about biology, engineering, engineering biology, and biologically inspired engineering. Follow on Twitter @thisischristina.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. huler 6:31 am 10/19/2012

    Wow! a kind of Beaufort Scale of urine. Science forever about perception, organization, categorization, induction. Thanks; this is wonderful.

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  2. 2. rickvhsa 7:56 pm 10/19/2012

    Urine sugar fermented into whisky? Would it then be called “Pisky” or maybe “whizky”?

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  3. 3. cccampbell38 8:55 pm 10/22/2012

    If you use it to make beer instead of whisky you don’t even have to change the color.

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  4. 4. AToftgaard 10:19 am 04/3/2013

    A pedantic comment for the sake of accuracy: The illustration is not from the printed book by Ullrich Pinder, Epiphanie Medicorum, published in 1506. It is from a manuscript from The Royal Library, Copenhagen, a manuscript with the shelf mark NKS 84 b folio.
    A digitized version of the manuscript is available through the following link:
    The urine wheel in question appears on fol. 5 verso (p. 10 in the digitized version). You can also read about on Biomedical Picture of the Day:
    Unfortunately the reference once given by the journal Nature to this illustration was wrong.
    Best wishes, Anders Toftgaard (The Royal Library, Copenhagen)

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  5. 5. Christina Agapakis in reply to Christina Agapakis 6:59 pm 04/12/2013

    Thank you so much for the clarification!

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