Marie Antoinette and Sir Thomas More were reported to have had their hair turn gray on the nights before their executions. However, hair is dead skin, so it can’t possibly change color. They both must have had a medical condition called alopecia areata (Hautarzt, 2002;53(7):492-494).
Marie Antoinette was born in 1755. In 1770, at age 14, she left her homeland in Austria and traveled to the French palace of Versailles to be married to the future king of France. Nineteen years later, in 1789, the French Revolution erupted and a mob of Parisian women marched on Versailles, shouting for the 34-year old queen’s blood. Many of the members of the mob were actually men in dresses, who thought that the royal troops would be less likely to fire upon women. The mob arrested the king and queen and their children and imprisoned them in the Tuileries palace in Paris. She was convicted of treason and sentenced to be executed. On October 16, 1793, her hair was reported to have turned white just before she was taken to the guillotine.
Sir Thomas More was an English lawyer, author and statesman who, in 1535, was convicted of treason and beheaded for opposing the King's right to divorce his wife and marry another woman which would have required separation from the Catholic Church. His hair turned white overnight in the Tower of London before his execution. He refused to sign the Act of Supremacy that declared King Henry VIII Supreme Head of the Church of England and was against the Protestant Reformation and the theology of Martin Luther. Four hundred years later, in 1935, Pope Pius XI named him a martyr and in 2000, Pope John Paul II declared him the "heavenly Patron of Statesmen and Politicians."
Die Fusse Im Feuer
Die Fusse Im Feuer is a famous poem that many German children learn in school. Translated into English, it means "feet in the fire." It was written by Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, who lived between 1825 and 1898, and it describes how a man’s hair suddenly turns white when he discovers that he is under the power of a Huguenot nobleman who was the husband of a woman he had tortured and killed several years before (Hautarzt, 2002, Vol 53, Iss 7, pp 492-494).
Hair Cannot Change Color
Hair cannot possibly turn from dark to white because the hair you see is dead. Hair gets its color from cells containing a pigment called melanin, which is formed only in living hairs and the only living hair is underneath the skin. Hair grows slowly from deep in your skin, with the deep-growing hair pushing the dead visible ends forward outside the skin. The hair that you see can never change color. The only way that you can develop gray hair is for the living cells underneath your skin to stop making melanin, and this happens slowly with aging. So, as you age, some hairs will be their normal color, while others, the ones without melanin, will be completely white. There are no grey hairs. Hair appears gray only when dark hairs intermingle with white hairs.
A medical condition called alopecia areata can cause hair to fall out overnight. In this condition, on one day a person may have a full head of hair and on the next, he or she may have only half as many hairs as he had the previous day. If you are about forty years of age, as Marie Antoinette was, you probably have a large amount of white hair already, but you may not know it because most of your hair would still be dark. The dark hair would be far more visible than the white hair and you would appear to have a full head of dark hair. A person who loses hair suddenly because of diffuse alopecia areata loses almost exclusively dark hair, but not the white hair, because the disease causes mostly the dark hairs to fall out. Therefore you have lost most of your dark hair and only the white hair remains. Then your hair would appear to have turned white overnight. Extreme fear can cause some of your hair to fall out and this may have been what caused the condition in Marie Antoinette and Sir Thomas More.
Looking for a Cure for Alopecia Areata
With alopecia areata, a person can lose hair all over or just in small localized patches. Their own immunity attacks and kills his own hair follicles instead of just attacking germs that enter his body. At present, the only known treatments are:
• Injecting cortisones into the bald areas. However, that brings back hair only temporarily and can cause atrophy and thinning of the injected skin that can be permanent.
• Causing a contact dermatitis such as poison ivy, which is terribly itchy and blistery and is only a temporary treatment.
JAK inhibitors, immune suppressants that are used to treat autoimmune diseases and cancers, can suppress a person's immunity and bring back all the hair that is lost (Nat Med, 2014 Sep; 20:1043-9). Examples include ruxilitinib and tofacitinib. However, these drugs are not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in alopecia areata. They do not cause permanent hair regrowth, so a person would have to continue taking these drugs, and they can increase risk for cancers and infections. Current research is looking for ways to apply these drugs topically in an ointment, which may be safer than taking them internally.
November 2, 1755 - October 16,1793
Sir Thomas More
February 7, 1478 - July 6, 1535
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