The itch mite

Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy, stated that seven-eighths of all chronic diseases were due to the itch. In the old dirty days many people must have had this. It is produced by a tiny mite, which burrows into the skin. There is small chance of its becoming established in the skin of reasonably cleanly people. Many of our young men, however, have been scattered about the globe in recent years without the opportunity for gracious living that many enjoyed at home. Under these conditions the itch has increased. And when such a person comes home to his family, this family finds out that it is a community affair. These little mites and their eggs get into the bedding and clothing. The treatment is bothersome and uncomfortable, and, if any one member of the family fails to be freed, it is in vain.

The louse

Another organism which has got by the protective barrier of the skin and caused much trouble for men is the pediculus, or louse. His story is a tremendously interesting one. Almost every animal has its own pet lice. Different tribes of men have their own. The natives of Africa have dark lice. The Caucasians have white ones. We about here have three separate kinds, for lice are more cliquish than college fraternities were supposed to be. Pediculus capitis frequents the hair of the head; pediculus pubis stays about the external genitals; while pediculus corporis takes all the rest of the body for its domain. They all belong to the aristocracy with a tremendously impressive ancestry. Undoubtedly the Queen of Sheba had lice as did most monarchs until fairly recent times.

Whenever conditions over a long period of time make it difficult to wash fairly frequently and change clothes, lice are pretty apt to appear. All of us in Europe during the First World War knew that body lice were almost inseparable from soldiers. There was no more familiar sight than boys sitting about picking the cooties from their clothes. I never found any on myself, although the trench fever I contracted was proof positive that they had called on me; but I imagine that except for little itching cooties are ordinarily not very bothersome.

Still I presume that nobody likes them but they do command respect. They have played a great part in the world’s history. If the patient that they bite has typhus fever or some other bad diseases, the lice themselves become infected. Many of the unfortunate creatures die, but if they live to feed upon somebody else then the result is another sick person. Typhus has been the chief disease spread in this way. Hans Zinsser in his most interesting and instructive book, Rats, Lice and History, shows us how most of the great wars have been won or lost according to the amount of typhus or other disease in the respective armies. Yet though the generals have been exalted or degraded, the louse has been ignored.


It is such cosmetic and aesthetic effects that most of us associate with the use of soap. We consider that one of the most striking differences between modern men and the best of the ancients is our enormous employment of this cleanser. We are told that the average American consumes about twenty-five pounds a year.

I wonder if its tremendous value in medicine is fully appreciated. Forty years ago my famous professor of hygiene said that soap and water is the best antiseptic. That is now well understood by modern medical men, even though there are some bacteria that soap solutions do not kill promptly. Bacteria removed from the body are just as harmless as though they were killed in situ. To build up the evidence I will quote from a recent book on soap, edited by Dr. Morris Fishbein: “No other single article can compare with soap in regard to the amount of sickness and death prevented by its use. Epidemics rage where soap and water are little used for personal and domestic purposes.” Two centuries ago Dr. Samuel Johnson said that if he were to keep a seraglio, he would keep his women in cotton rather than silks, as cotton showed its own nastiness. By inference he suggested that cotton was amenable to cleaning by soap. Over a century later physicians and hospitals realized the significance of this remark made by a doctor of laws, and clean cotton is now an essential with them.

It is strange to find that many people do not know how to use soap efficiently. Here is the proper recipe. Thick suds should be formed and rubbed in thoroughly for a considerable period, allowing the dirt to be softened and freed from the skin. If there is much dirt or extreme cleanliness is desired, the process may be repeated, but the suds should never be washed away quickly before they have done their work. Mother’s old washerwoman on Cape Cod, after looking at the black roller towel, would say, “You boys had a dirty wash and a clean wipe.”

Within the lifetime of those who are now becoming grandparents the bathtub with running hot and cold water has become the very hallmark of the American. In my country village I think my mother, put in nearly the first one. Before that the Saturday night bath was an institution. A big fire was kept going in the kitchen range, the wooden clothes tub was brought in, and the family took turns.

Nowadays people are rather diffident about admitting that they don’t have a daily bath. This is an exaggerated attitude. In fact there are a fair number of people with a tendency to dry skin who just cannot take it. Hot water and soap remove the normal fat, provided by the glands of the skin, to such an extent that they chap, itch, and are exceedingly uncomfortable. Even normally greasy people can get along with a moderate amount of soap and water.

Recently I was at an isolated skiing club where trouble with the water supply allowed no baths for four days. I do not think that we smelt strong and we were comfortable. Right here I must forestall cynical remarks by stating that I get well over three hundred and sixty-five baths a year myself.

Also remember that although soap is of great medicinal value, “medicinal soaps” are not worth while. Soap is soap and does its work by cleansing and not by the chemicals that are put in it. If you want a nice smelling soap with perfume, pay the price and have it, but understand that the well-known, inexpensive, mild American brands are as good as money can buy.


Alopecia areata may appear in men, women, or children; in men twice as often on the back of the head as the front. Just the opposite is true with the women, but, possibly because of the way women arrange their hair, it is not noticed in the back. So, as women are smarter than men in covering up their blemishes, we can’t judge well which sex is more afflicted. Statistics would seem to show that lately alopecia is becoming increasingly frequent in England. Once again statistics are deceiving.   In England, since the government took charge of health, eye glasses, false teeth, and wigs are furnished by the Ministry of Health. People who have been resigned for years to baldness are now trying out wigs at the government’s expense. In alopecia areata it is common to have a partial loss of hair and recovery. These are the cases that have encouraged so many people to believe that the application of the proper hair tonic will favorably influence their baldness. But for those who just gradually get bald, their misplaced optimism has made the fortunes of manufacturers of hair lotions. I have received many, many questions about the hair. There is still the belief amongst many people that local applications may cause hair to grow on bald spots or improve the health of the hair. You have been told that the hair follicles where the hairs actually grow are in the deep layers of the skin. The hairs themselves are dead matter whose appearance may be changed by dyes or other treatments. Rarely, I believe, are the deep, live parts injured by these materials and never, I think, are they helped.

You may get some impression of the blind credulity of the public when you learn that one chain of “hair experts” has a yearly income of nearly four million dollars. Often treatments are given with massage with the idea that there will be an increase of blood supply and this will cause the hair to grow. Any bald-headed man who has received a deep cut on his scalp should be convinced that there is plenty of blood circulating there.

Few things in our daily life seem more foolish than this unintelligent attitude towards the hair. Even the most brilliant minds are weak in this respect. On our college football team was a dashing halfback with the blackest, most luxuriant head of hair in the group. The brain beneath was in many respects as much to be admired; yet a few years later, after he had the benefit of a medical education, he began to grow bald and spent his money for hair lotions to bring back his fading glory. He is even balder now.

I realize that anything I say will not affect the sale of hair tonics. Years ago, when Dr. Greene’s was a popular patent medicine, some exasperated doctor exclaimed that it never did anybody in the world any good. The reply from the manufacturer was: “You are wrong. It has done Dr. Greene lots of good.” It is not at all unusual for a skin specialist to be bald. Choose your grandparents from those who did not lose their hair.


The hair evidently serves as a protection to those animals which possess it. It cushions blows, and takes up chafe; it holds the warm air about the body in cold weather and wards off the ultraviolet, the burning rays of the sun, in the summer. (Don’t clip your long-haired dog in July and August. His tender skin needs the shade and he does not give off heat through the skin as you do.)

Of course human beings do not really need their hair as their remote ancestors did. They have learned to fashion garments which take its place. Any physician can name a number of people who have suddenly and completely lost their hair, even their eye lashes and the hairs inside their nostrils. Except for the reasonable unhappiness over their altered appearance, they are not apparently any worse off.

Hair in humans is now a distinguishing sex characteristic. Yet the “crowning glory” of womanhood is exclusively theirs only by the forbearance of their male friends. Witness the picturesque appearance of Buffalo Bill or the Stuart Cavaliers. The “beard of goats and men” does establish pretty accurately the sex of the wearers, and an abundance of hair over the rest of the body is fortunately the proud possession of males. The two sexes are distinguished by the arrangement of pubic hair. That of the male comes up in a triangular shape to the umbilicus while in the female it stops short at a transverse line just above the mons veneris, the prominent pad over the bone at the lowest part of the abdomen. In certain disturbances of the endocrine system, that is, the glands of internal secretion, the male is apt to have a female distribution of hair, and vice versa.

It is evident that human hair is a great source of worry. Most of the worriers are bothered by its loss; a few by the presence of too much. For those who have too much, treatments with an electric needle can kill individual hairs, and X-ray will remove the hair. This latter is a tricky procedure arid should be used only by competent X-ray physicians.

For the other side of the story: if the hair begins to come out so as to leave irregular bald spots, and then see a skin specialist. It might be ringworm, or alopecia areata. The Greeks thought that a person who had patches of baldness looked like a mangy fox so they gave the name “alopecia areata” to the condition. This does not refer to the shiny pates so common in our middle-aged and older men. Often, of course, small spots of baldness are due to ringworm or other infections. The spots we are referring to have no evident cause.