05 January 2013

Shaved heads for measles


These are rather famous heads - the children of Tsar Nicholar II, whose heads were shaved after a bout of measles.

I wondered about the reasons for this tonsural excess; a quick search found statements that it was done to relieve fever -
"I read about lots of people shaving their heads when they have measles back then. It seems that it was done for coolnes. High fever made people to have a very "hot" sensation at the head."
- or to prevent transmission by fomites:
"In those days, after an illness like measles, scarlet fever, etc, had affected someone, their hair, clothes, toys, etc were burned to destroy the virus and ensure that no-one got re-infected.  The girls all had VERY long hair and I suppose it was believed the virus could get stuck and incubate in the hair.  So, the only way to ensure that the virus was no longer in the house was to shave off the hair and burn it."
- or that it was for cosmetic reasons:
Their hair started to fall out, so their heads were shaved.
All of these sound speculative, based on how a modern person would justify the action, but I've not seen a contemporary source re shaving one's head during an illness.  Perhaps a reader here will know the answer.

In any case, this photo was later used in an attempt to identify the skulls after the children were murdered.

Photo via The Oddment Emporium.

20 comments:

  1. It is actually Tsar Nicholas II, not the III. The confusion might be over his father, Alexander III, who ruled Russia before him.

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    1. The confusion was actually because of my inattention while transcribing. Fixed. Thank you, Barnabas.

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  2. I first encountered this in one of the "Little House" books. Mary gets measles and they shave her head but she goes blind anyway. I've always wondered why they shaved her head but have never been able to find out why.

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    1. http://historicaltidbits.blogspot.com/2010/02/scarlet-fever.html (would apply to any disease that would result in a high fever)

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    2. It was mostly to prevent convulsions or brain damage from extremely high fevers, I believe. Makes sense, when you think about it - no hair would let the heat dissipate more quickly.

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    3. I think Anonymous has it right. The era is correct since the guide cited was from 1871 and the children were shaved in 1917.

      "When the throat is much affected the fever is always higher, and determination to the brain is apt to supervene. As soon as heat of head or delirium indicates this, the hair should at once be shaved off entirely. Any attempt to retain it is futile, as it must fall after the fever, and its presence imperils life."

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    4. That may be the reason they did it, but their science was wrong. Although it seems "logical" shaving a head would not affect the temperature of intracranial tissue. It may have the opposite effect. In elephants, hair serves to help dissipate heat in a hot climate:

      http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121010172120.htm

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    5. A great deal of the science in that article is wrong. Including a reference to the long debunked "science" of homeopathy.

      Determining hair's effect on thermo-regulation would involve a much better understanding of the length, thickness, and thermal conductivity of human hair than I am able to muster.

      You are absolutely correct that the temperature of the brain is primarily controlled by the temperature of the incoming blood and the influence of extracranial thermal changes is kept to a minimum.

      A quick literature search yielded this. May be relevant.

      "In humans, the temperature of the brain surface and, consequently, the temperature differential between deep brain regions and the brain surface is unknown. Assuming the direct heat transfer coefficient h0 in humans has the same value h0 = 6·10−3 W·cm−2·°C−1 and, using Eqs. 8–9 along with the estimated value for the heat resistance of the intermediate layers for humans ρ = 170 W−1·cm2·°C, we get the effective heat transfer coefficient for human h = 3·10−3 W·cm−2·°C−1. Substituting this value of h into Eq. 11, for Ta = 37°C, Te = 20°C and the typical characteristic shielding length in humans Δ = 3.6 mm, we find the temperature differential between deep brain regions and the brain surface ∼3°C. Note, however, that such a high value of the differential is obtained by using the same value of h0 characteristic to a rat that has been subjected to a surgery (preceded by shaving). For unperturbed head surfaces, the direct heat transfer coefficient can be much smaller and, as a consequence, the temperature differential between deep brain regions and the brain surface would also be smaller. We measured a scalp temperature in five normal human volunteers seating quietly at ambient temperature of 21°C. Temperature on the bare skin surface was 32.1 ± 1.0°C and temperature on the skin surface covered by hair was 34.2 ± 0.6°C. By making use of theoretical equations derived previously (27), we can estimate that the temperature differential between deep brain and brain surface is ∼2.5°C in the area of bare skin and 0.9°C in the area of hair-covered skin. Corresponding effective heat transfer coefficients are h = 1.5·10−3 and 0.8·10−3 W·cm−2·°C−1. As expected, these numbers are smaller compared with those estimated above for surgically operated case."

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    6. I only skimmed the PLOS article, but I didn't see any reference to homeopathic arguments. ?

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    7. Sorry, I wasn't clear. The 1871 guide referenced by Anonymous above had a reference to homeopathy.

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  3. It was scarlet fever, not measles.

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  4. How sad to read that they were all murdered... Presumably just because they happened to be the sons of the Czar?

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    1. Four daughters -

      http://tywkiwdbi.blogspot.com/2011/01/otma-daughters-of-tsar-nicholas-ii.html

      - and one son. You can read about their murder by scrolling down in this biography of Olga to the "captivity and death" section:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Duchess_Olga_Nikolaevna_of_Russia

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    2. Thanks for the correction - my sexist assumption, no less - and the link. In more modern times, in most countries, families of the hereditary 1% of the upper 1% wouldn't be murdered purely because their DNA proves they'd lived a life of luxury. They might be stripped of their familial wealth, of course, but also be murdered because of it? There must be quite a few disgraced CEOs who are grateful that times have changed and only jail awaits them, but their families remain free.

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  5. Reminds me of Pedro shaving his head in Napoleon Dynamite, which he said was because he felt so hot from a fever. It was weird to do, and I never got what it added to the movie except that he got to wear a cool wig afterwards.

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  6. Amazing how similar they all look without hair. I mean, yes, I know they're siblings; but I have 4 sisters as well, and we don't look anywhere near as similar as these children did, hair or no!

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    1. Maybe you have different fathers. ;.)

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    2. Always possible, Lars, always possible!

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    3. Just funnin'. Thanks for staying in good humor. :.)

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