views updated Jun 11 2018

baldness Over the centuries, male pattern baldness has been a sensitive subject for a great many men. Their desire to restore their crowning glory has led them to try all sorts of supposed remedies, to believe all manner of bizarre theories, and to subject themselves to many methods of attempted restoration which could best be described as torture. One of the earliest overreactions to the problem concerned biblical prophet Elisha, who summoned forth a bear to kill 42 children who had been mocking him. In an effort to restore their locks, Elisha, and other bald men of the time, turned to rubbing bear grease on their scalps, a treatment that remained popular for many centuries.

What today we sometimes refer to as ‘illusion hairstyling’ also goes way back in time. Julius Caesar utilized the combed straight forward method to cover his bald area. A second method was to take the hair from one side of the head, letting it grow long, then drawing it all the way over to the other side of the head. Since either method attempted to some extent to defy the law of gravity, much plastering down of the strands was necessary. Illusion styling remains popular today, especially among politicians. Hippocrates was the first person to describe the pattern male baldness commonly took, but he had no idea what caused the hair loss. He applied sheep's urine to his bald spot, to no avail. Early Romans plastered their scalps with chicken dung. When Napolean and Czar Alexander of Russia (both bald) met to discuss the future of Europe, they got sidetracked into talking about baldness cures.

Wigs and toupees were common at least as far back as the days of the first written medical record — the Ebers Papyrus, c.1500 bc, which contained recipes for baldness remedies. Hairpieces were desired because baldness was believed to be a sign of servitude or immorality by all ancient nations. After an ancient Greek battle the victor Mausoleus ordered the defeated Lycian males to have their heads shaved, an extremely humiliating punishment. Modern day military organizations of most countries routinely shave the heads of all recruits. Hygiene played some role in the use of this practice earlier in the modern period — it made it easier to control for lice, for example. But it also symbolized the lack of power and passive submission of the recruits. Prisoners and traitors have also had their heads shaved across time and cultures, to declare their worthlessness. Then there was the concept of strength. Caesar worried that his powers might recede with his hair. Another biblical reference was to Samson, whose strength was linked to his hair. When his head was shaved by Delilah his power evaporated, allowing his capture by the Philistines. Only when his hair grew back was he strong enough to tear down the temple. Thus, down through time came images of bald men as weak, impotent, passive, submissive.

Stupidity might have been added to the list if Samuel Johnson had his way, for he thought baldness was due to dryness of the brain and its shrinking from the skull. However, later it became common to declare baldness to be more prevalent among the upper classes. Both of these ideas led to and reinforced theories that lack of hair was caused by mental activity or high intelligence. Desperate for something positive to hold on to, bald men began to popularize the idea that they were more virile, more sexually active than hair-bearing males. With the male hormone testosterone linked somehow to baldness it was easy for the erroneous idea to spread that the more testosterone you produced the more quickly you went bald, and the more completely you went bald. As proof, history had the example of the eunuch. Eunuchs never went bald, and if they were going bald when they became eunuchs the balding process stopped completely. However, lost hair was never restored. The only 100% effective preventive measure against baldness was — and remains — castration.

Widespread acceptance of baldness by the scientific community as heredity-based did not take place until the 1940s. Until then other theories ran wild. The idea for example that hats caused baldness also had ancient roots, with heavy metal helmets blamed for causing hair loss among Roman and Egyptian soldiers. This theory reached its peak of popularity from the late 1800s, lasting into the 1940s or so. What was interesting about hats as a theory was that its proponents had to explain just why it was that hats caused men to go bald but not women — for whom the hat was as necessary and prevalent an item of dress as it was for males. The search for causes often led to strange and convoluted logic. Often the scalp and skull were blamed; there were ‘muscle heads’, ‘fat heads’, and the dreaded ‘ivory domes’. In one way or another the scalp worked against its owner to somehow reduce or cut off circulation to the scalp, with this loss of blood supply resulting in the death of the hair. This too, led to problems of logic when believers tried to explain hirsute female scalps. Then there was the popular microbe theory, wherein a living microbe or bacillus caused baldness. That is, baldness was contagious. Barbers took a lot of criticism for having unhealthy establishments, which led to the easy spread of those germs. Hair-styling salons for women were somehow much more sanitary: how else to explain the difference? Those microbes were indeed ‘isolated’ and ‘observed’ by scientists of the time, with work undertaken to discover a vaccine. One of the more popular preventatives and treatments for hair loss a century ago was blistering of the scalp, by regular application of irritants. One of the more popular irritants was cantharides (crushed insects better known as the reputed aphrodisiac Spanish Fly). Some of the treatments would resurface again and again, over time. The use of electricity to treat baldness had a run in the very early years of the 1900s and reappeared once more in the 1990s.

Of course, quacks had a field day all through the 1900s peddling all sorts of nostrums — tonics such as Lucky Tiger, Herpicide, and Kreml. They grew no hair, stopped no baldness, lightened the buyer's wallet, and sold like crazy. At least most were painless and harmless, but not all. Some of the implant techniques introduced foreign material into the body, with occasionally horrifying results. Implants were first introduced around 1898, only to fall dormant within a few years, then to resurface in the 1970s. Complaints of discomfort, pain, infection, and scarring grew until the US Federal Trade Commission ordered companies to disclose that implants, although cared for like natural hair, require special handling and attention. Equally gruesome was the modern technique called scalp reduction. It seemed to be based on the idea that you didn't have too little hair for your scalp but too much scalp for your hair. Therefore, the answer was to slice out sections of your scalp. The latest rage in baldness nostrums was the drug minoxidil, sold under the label Rogaine.

In recent times many psychological studies have been done on attitudes of people toward bald and hair-bearing men. Generally, bald men have fared poorly, being assessed as less attractive, less confident, less successful, less likeable, and so forth, compared with hirsute men. There were few straws for them to grasp. Perhaps one was the solution to be found on late-night cable television in 1990s America. Those 30 minute ‘infomericals’ explained it all: for only $40 you just sprayed it on, hair in a can. By 1994 American men spent an estimated $2 billion yearly dealing with hair loss.

Kerry Segrave


Segrave, K. (1996). Baldness; a social history. McFarland, Jefferson, NC.

See also Alopecia; hair.


views updated May 18 2018

33. Baldness

See also 193. HAIR ; 196. HEAD .

baldness. Also called alopecia, phalacrosis . acomous, adj.
Medicine. medical specialist who treats baldness.
Medicine. congenital or acquired baldness. Also atrichosis .
calvities, calvity
baldness, especially at the top or back of the head. calvous, adj.
a dread of baldness.


views updated May 18 2018

54. Baldness

  1. Aeschylus mistaking his bald head for a rock, an eagle dropped a tortoise on it, thus killing him. [Gk. Legend: Brewer Dictionary, 13]
  2. Mowgli (the Frog) name given infant by wolves for hairlessness. [Childrens Lit.: The Jungle Book ]
  3. bald eagle U.S. national bird whose white head looks bald. [Am. Hist.: EB, I: 753]


views updated May 14 2018

baldness (bawld-nis) n. see alopecia.