In the year 1781, America was still in the throes of the Revolutionary War, but while founders like Washington found glory on the battlefield, there was also important work to be done abroad. At the time, America’s most integral ally was France, and our representative there was Mr. Benjamin Franklin, who, although conducting important diplomatic business, rarely passed up an opportunity for indulgences. Fine foods and available women were always among his regular creature comforts, but Franklin would also pen the occasional bit of humor writing to amuse himself and his friends. And, from this period, no piece is quite as notorious as an essay entitled “A Letter to a Royal Academy About Farting.”
The essay was addressed to The Royal Academy of Brussels, which was — and indeed, still is — one of Europe’s most distinguished scientific institutions. In his letter, Franklin satirically proposed that the academy should invest in finding a way for humankind to fart without shame by means of some sort of supplement to make farts smell better. But while it was formatted as a serious scientific letter, Franklin never actually sent it to the Royal Academy. Instead, he distributed it as a joke to his prominent friends. Today, “Fart Proudly” — as it would come to be known — is regarded as a notable piece of satirical writing as well as a fantastic bit of pub ammo (which Franklin, no doubt, would be pleased by).
So, in celebration of the letter’s 240th anniversary, I present to you Mr. Franklin’s letter — albeit abridged — along with the requisite science, history and philosophy to give the proper context to this important piece of literature.
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From the Desk of Mr. Benjamin Franklin to the Royal Academy of Brussels, c. 1781: To the Royal Academy of BrusselIes — have perused your late mathematical Prize Question, proposed in lieu of one in Natural Philosophy, [and] I was glad to find by these following words — “l’Acadeemie a jugee que cette deecouverte, en eetendant les bornes de nos connoissances, ne seroit pas sans UTILITE.”
Google Translate: “The academy has judged that this discovery, extending the limits of our knowledge, would not be without utility.”
Edward J. Larson, American historian and author of Franklin & Washington: The Founding Partnership: Benjamin Franklin was a very pragmatic person. In addition to being a diplomat, the governor of his state, a political leader and a constitution writer, he was also a scientist who instinctively believed that science should be practical — that it should serve a purpose for humankind — rather than be esoteric, which much scientific writing was back then. With electricity, for example, Franklin didn’t write a theory of electricity, he invented the lightning rod, which helped to protect buildings from lightning.
So, when he heard that The Royal Academy of Brussels was offering a prize — which, generally, was a medal and a big chunk of money — for a practical invention, he got the idea to write this letter. And while “Fart Proudly” was a joke, it did speak to Franklin’s desire for practicality, or “utility” as he described it. This was true of all of Franklin’s satirical writing — it always had a deeper meaning. That was part of what made him America’s first great humorist, which goes all the way back to his writings as a teenager writing under the pen name “Silence Dogood.”
Brian Patrick Mulligan, actor and Ben Franklin impersonator: As a teenager, Franklin wanted to write opinion pieces for his older brother’s newspaper, but his brother wouldn’t let him, so he developed the pseudonym of “Mrs. Silence Dogood.” She was a widow, and she would provide commentary on society and pop the balloons of high society people. Everyone loved this town gossip, Mrs. Silence Dogood, and that tongue-in-cheek satire is what you see in a lot of his writings. For example, you can find that humor in Poor Richard’s Almanack, and in the letter “Advice to a Friend on Choosing a Mistress.” And, of course, you can find it in “Fart Proudly,” where you can really get a taste of Franklin’s mischievous side.
From the Desk of Mr. Benjamin Franklin to the Royal Academy of Brussels, c. 1781: That you esteem utility an essential point in your enquiries… Permit me then humbly to propose one of that sort for your consideration… It is universally well known, that in digesting our common food, there is created… in the bowels of human creatures, a great quantity of wind. That the permitting this air to escape and mix with the atmosphere, is usually offensive… well-bred people therefore, to avoid giving such offence, forcibly restrain the efforts of nature to discharge that wind.
Elaine Swann, etiquette expert and founder of The Swann School of Protocol: Yes, it is impolite to pass gas in front of others. The proper thing is to do is to hold it, excuse yourself to a nearby restroom and let it go.
From the Desk of Mr. Benjamin Franklin to the Royal Academy of Brussels, c. 1781: That so retain’d contrary to nature, it not only gives frequently great present pain, but occasions future diseases, such as habitual cholics, ruptures, tympanies, etc. often destructive of the constitution, & sometimes of life itself.
Dr. Satish S.C. Rao, gastroenterologist: No, you cannot die from holding a fart. It can cause pain — or “colics,” as Franklin says — because, by holding gas, you’re pushing the bowel wall beyond its capacity to hold. But, ultimately, the pain would become overwhelming and you’ll get rid of the gas before any rupture takes place.
From the Desk of Mr. Benjamin Franklin to the Royal Academy of Brussels, c. 1781: Were it not for the odiously offensive smell accompanying such escapes, polite people would probably be under no more restraint in discharging such wind in company, than they are in spitting, or in blowing their noses.
Swann: Spitting is absolutely unacceptable when in polite company. Also, the sound of nose blowing can be off-putting. For these, do everything you can to step out of the presence of others.
From the Desk of Mr. Benjamin Franklin to the Royal Academy of Brussels, c. 1781: My Prize Question therefore should be, to discover some drug… to be mix’d with our common food… that shall render the natural discharges of wind from our bodies, not only inoffensive, but agreeable as perfumes.
Rao: Unfortunately, in the years since Mr. Franklin’s letter, we have still not come up with anything that has the ability to chemically neutralize that bit of sulfur in your farts, which is what causes the odor.
From the Desk of Mr. Benjamin Franklin to the Royal Academy of Brussels, c. 1781: That this is not… altogether impossible, may appear from these considerations… He that dines on stale flesh, especially with much addition of onions, shall be able to afford a stink that no company can tolerate; while he that has lived for some time on vegetables only… may any where give vent to his griefs, unnoticed.
From the Desk of Mr. Benjamin Franklin to the Royal Academy of Brussels, c. 1781: But as there are many to whom an entire vegetable diet would be inconvenient [perhaps] a little powder of lime (or some other thing equivalent) taken in our food… may have [an] effect on the air produc’d in and issuing from our bowels?… Especially if it be converted into a perfume, [like] musk or lilly, rose or bergamot… surely such a liberty of expressing one’s scent-iments… is of [infinite] importance to human happiness…
Swann: Even if the bad odor was eliminated, passing gas in public would still be impolite as the sound can often be offensive as well.
From the Desk of Mr. Benjamin Franklin to the Royal Academy of Brussels, c. 1781: In short, this invention, if compleated, would [provide] universal and continual UTILITY [rendering all other proposals] scarcely worth a FART-hing.
M.D. Whalen, author of The Big Book of Farty Facts and The Second Big Book of Farty Facts: As I wrote in my book, “Ben Franklin may be best known as one of America’s founding fathers, but he stands alone as America’s founding farter.” That being said, I’m no expert on Benjamin Franklin, but it’s quite clear that he didn’t suffer fools gladly. When I’ve read “Fart Proudly,” the sarcasm in it is so thick that it’s clear that he was poking fun at these pompous people at the Royal Academy, and he does it in the most universal way possible — via a fart joke.
Being an American writer who works as a cartoonist in Hong Kong, I’ve become very aware of cultural differences in humor and there are huge differences that are often unbridgeable. However, one thing that everyone thinks is funny is farting and I don’t know why. In my research, I’ve looked for scholarly discourses on, “Why do people laugh at farts?” and I can’t explain it, but it’s common to all cultures. No matter what our differences are, farts are always funny. Even the oldest recorded joke in human history is a fart joke. From ancient Sumeria, it’s 4,000 years old, and it was found on a cuneiform tablet, and it’s a fart joke! “Fart Proudly” is just another great example of that tradition, that universal reference point that we all share.
Mulligan: Franklin, of course, never sent “Fart Proudly” to the Royal Academy of Brussels. The reason why we have it in existence today is because he made copies of it and sent it to his friends, who also made copies and sent those around.
Larson: Even if Franklin had sent the letter to the academy, my guess is that they would have had a great laugh about it. I doubt, though, that they would have had a good enough sense of humor to actually publish it or issue a reply, which is likely why the letter remained unsent.
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All of the above brings us neatly to the present day and toward the conclusion of this article. Because although the letter, as Larson points out, was unsent, this was a matter I swiftly rectified by passing it along to the academy myself. And to my utmost delight, they replied.
From the Desk of Mr. Brian VanHooker to Royal Academies for Science and the Arts of Belgium, c. 2021: To the Royal Academies for Science and the Arts of Belgium — Gentlemen, I am a writer at MEL Magazine and I am working on a piece about a letter that Benjamin Franklin sent to your organization’s predecessor, the Royal Academy of Brussels, 240 years ago. The letter was entitled “Fart Proudly,” and I’m reaching out to see if anyone at your organization might like to issue a reply to Mr. Franklin’s letter. The letter, in full, is attached. I welcome your reply.
From the Young Academy of Belgium to Mr. Benjamin Franklin, c. 2021, Reply to Your Letter, “Fart Proudly,” From 240 Years Ago: Highly Esteemed Benjamin Franklin, thank you for your amusing letter and apologies for our belated reply. We regret that your letter only reached us now, but we nevertheless wish to answer it, on behalf of Belgium’s Young Academy. Our Academy is part of the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts, one of the heirs of the Royal Academy of Brussels…
Let us now turn to your proposal for a new competition. Your suggested topic on improving flatulence odour is amusing, but indeed also very relevant. An outstanding answer to the contest as you formulate it would be ground-breaking.
“The science of the gut has evolved rapidly in recent years. We now know that it is mainly bacteria that release gases through their metabolism. Especially the sequencing of the microbiome has advanced enormously in the last 15 years. We are also working hard on prebiotics and probiotics that ensure less — and nicer smelling — gas production.
“The odour is largely from sulphide production: either sulphide itself or other organic molecules made from it, like mercaptans. Sulphate reducing bacteria are the main culprits and use either small molecular-weight electron donors like lactate or ethanol with sulphate as electron acceptor. Hydrogen is also a substrate and that is key. If you can switch this off and push the hydrogen to methane, then no stink is produced.”
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In other words, Mr. Franklin, they’re working on it and, perhaps sometime within the next 240 years, your dream of non-smelly farts might just come true. And now, while the full reply from the academy can be found here, I’ll skip ahead to the letter’s conclusion, written directly to Benjamin Franklin.
Young Academy: Your letter is a ripple through time. It may not surprise you that scientific questions can have effects across decades and even centuries. This idea remains the tacit hope of many scientists working together for the progress of humanity. We have not yet invented a reverse time machine, but we send our answer along with your question forward in time, hoping that it may inspire future scientists as your question inspired us.