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JAMA 100 Years Ago
November 9, 2011

CAN HAIR TURN WHITE IN A NIGHT?

JAMA. 2011;306(18):2039. doi:10.1001/jama.2011.1607

A cherished popular belief is that of the sudden blanching of the hair from fright, worry or other severe mental strain. It plays its part in the drama and in fiction, while history records its famous instances. Who has not heard that Marie Antoinette's hair turned white during the night before her execution, or that the deeds and terrors of St. Bartholomew's night blanched the hair of Henry the Fourth? Most of us have wondered how the change could come about so rapidly as tradition relates; and yet so universal is the belief in this phenomenon that few have the hardihood to doubt it. One may accept one theory, that a sudden entrance of air or gas into the hairs makes them gray or white, or one may accept Metchnikoff's idea that it is all done by hungry, pigment-loving phagocytes, or one may take the stand of Stieda and boldly say that it isn't so at all. This refractory German first proves that such a thing couldn't possibly happen, and then, not satisfied, declares that it never did happen. With equal disregard of folk-lore, history and medical literature, he points the finger of doubt, and challenges many long-deceased historians and physicians to arise and prove their stories.1

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