Hypertrichosis, Once Treated by Roentgen or X-rays

(Tricho Sales Corporation treated excess hair growth with a "ray of light")

Roentgen (X-ray) therapy was the treatment for hypertrichosis in the late 1890s and 1920s

Following Wilhelm Roentgen's discovery of X-Rays in 1895, doctors around the world turned their primitive X-ray machines on everything from their own hands to patients with cancer and tuberculosis.

  • For a German immigrant, Albert Geyser, who graduated from a New York medical school in that year of discovery, X-rays were obviously the future of medicine.
  • Some researchers quickly noticed that exposure to X-rays had a remarkable side effect in that it made hair fall out.
  • Physician Leopold Freund, in Austria, recommended the ray of light as a treatment for excess body hair, or hypertrichosis.
  • In 1899, Dr. Freund wrote: "Hair begins to fall out in thick tufts when lightly grasped, or it is seen on the towel after the patient's toilet."
  • Such a treatment was not like the painful tweezing and caustic chemicals, he said, "we possess in the Roentgen-treatment an absolutely painless method of epilation". Epilation, of course, is "the act of removing hair".
  • There were test across Europe and North America which seemed to be successful, even "curing" a "bearded lady" in Louisville, Kentucky.
  • Even at that time, there were hints that all was not well, because in France, some doctors already reported that their patients had fallen ill.
  • Freund would not admit that X-rays had anything to do with sickness; instead, he blamed "the hysterical character" of French patients.
  • Albert Geyser, the graduate from the New York medical school, mentioned earlier, and then working at Cornell Medical College in New York, embraced X-rays with enthusiasm.
  • Even though he lost the fingers of his left hand to frequent exposures to X-rays, he invented the Cornell tube; an X-ray vacuum tube of leaded glass with a small aperture of common glass, which was meant to direct lower-energy, or "ultrasoft", X-rays directly onto a small area of a person's skin.
  • By 1908, Geyser had administered about 5,000 X-ray exposures with his tube, for a variety of skin ailments.
  • Although he was warned about the potential dangers of X-rays, Geyser announced in 1915 that he had treated 200 people for hypertrichosis.
  • He insisted in the Journal for Cutaneous Diseases that "Roentgen therapy is the treatment for hypertrichosis" explaining that, "when using the Cornell tube no protection of any kind, either for patient or operator, is needed."
By 1924, Albert Geyser was ready to formally unveil his hair-removal treatment, and the "Tricho Sales Corporation" came into existence

All kinds of newspaper ads proclaimed: "Superfluous hair gone for good"; "Newest method . . . . Absolutely painless. No needles"; "Artistically reproduces the process of nature. . . . no injury to the skin will result"; "Women of refinement" were told of a "radio vibration" treatment"; and another ad said, "A hair starvation process" so safe that "Tricho treatments have been given to wives, daughters, and sisters of physicians".

The treatment was described as, "Nothing but a ray of light touches you"

  • Clients of the Tricho clinics in 75 American cities sat at a mahogany cabinet with a small front window for the treatment area where there was a faint hum and a whiff of ozone; and after a few minutes the machine automatically shut off and the patient made an appointment for her next session.
  • Women were delighted because their hair actually did fall out and in the New York City clinic alone, there were 20,000 clients.
  • With fees for a course treatment ranging from a few hundred to over a thousand dollars, the Tricho business was very profitable.
  • Starting in 1926, doctors were beginning to see a growing number of women with skin wrinkling, mottling, lesions, ulcers, and even skin cancer after their X-ray treatments.
  • In July, 1929, the American Medical Association formally condemned the Tricho treatment.
  • With the prospects of being sued for millions of dollars, the Tricho Sales Corporation collapsed in 1930.
  • Although it became illegal to have such X-ray treatments, a second wave of Tricho-related injuries resulted with the scarring, wrinkling, and cancers that, as one doctor in Toronto, Canada, put it, were "obvious stigmata of radiation exposure".
  • By 1970, US researchers were attributing over one-third of radiation-induced cancers in women to X-ray hair removal.

—This page consists of excerpts and modifications from
"Nothing but a ray of light" by Paul Collins;
New Scientist; September 8, 2007; pages 68-69.

The tricho- unit of words is available.