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No. 1494:
X-Ray Hair Removal

Today, we kill ourselves to remove hair. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Years ago, I did a program on the mania that followed the discovery of X-rays in 1896 -- things like commercial lead-lined undergarments to protect women from prying rays. The craziness went so far that someone opened a women's hair-removal clinic soon after early X-ray technicians found they were losing their hair.

At the time, that struck me as absurd. But now historian Rebecca Herzig writes a history of cosmetic hair removal by X-ray. It was, as it turns out, serious business for about fifty years. It began right after Roentgen's discovery, and it continued through WW-II.

The dangers of X-rays were clear enough within a few years, but they made hair removal just too easy. One early practitioner, Albert Geyser, created his Tricho machine. A woman would sit for four minutes with her chin in a holder while X-rays wove a delicate ozone smell about her. The hair on her chin was gone. Only later did she have to pay the terrible price. By 1970, one third of all radiation-induced cancer in women traced to X-ray hair-removal. In 1954, a Tricho patient wrote to a doctor,

... within the last few years 'white spots' have appeared on my chin. This has been ... heartbreaking to me ... I have been wondering if there might possibly be some new medical discovery which might help me.

Hairy womanThe practice had been not just dangerous but often illegal as well, for decades. Herzig begins her story by telling how San Francisco police staked out a house in 1940. Women entered by the front door and left by the back. A doctor with a black bag came and went. They thought it was an illegal abortion mill. It turned out to be a secret X-ray hair-removal clinic.

Herzig thinks that X-rays came along when the time was ripe. Darwin's ideas were on everyone's mind, and that fed a whole new hair-consciousness. Hair was what apes had, not humans. Suddenly, hair anywhere but on a woman's head was viewed as a medical disablilty. Yet the acceptable means of removal were all nasty. Hot wax and electrolysis were expensive and painful, and using a razor blade meant directly acknowledging the problem. But X-rays were painless, permanent -- and scientific. Like tobacco, they harbored a danger that lay beyond the near horizon. So countless women secretly used X-rays.

ToupeeTwo Canadian doctors finally gave a name to all the scarring, ulceration, cancer, and death that X-rays had caused. They called it the North American Hiroshima maiden syndrome. X-ray hair removal finally ended after 1946 -- after we'd seen all those terribly wounded Japanese women whose radiation hair-removal had been no matter of choice.

But once we had acknowledged the threat, that did not mean we had learned to accept our true human nature. Perhaps some other time I should do a program about the excesses that men have gone to, trying to get hair back onto their balding heads.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Herzig, R., Removing Roots: "North American Hiroshima Maidens" and the X Ray. Technology and Culture, Vol. 40, No. 4, October 1999, pp. 723-745.

For more on the early history of X-rays, see Episodes 654, 923, 1095, and 572.