A brief history of beards and pandemics

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Albert Calmette, the French bacteriologist who developed a vaccination against tuberculosis for children with Camille Guerin, with a beard in 1891. | Bettmann Archive

From the 1918 Spanish flu to coronavirus.

In the first years of the 20th century, New York City was in the throes of a tuberculosis hysteria. Although the disease had been an epidemic in the US since the mid-1800s, the rise of germ theory proved, for the first time, that tuberculosis was contagious. People panicked. As Frank M. Snowden recounted in his book Epidemics and Society, New Yorkers began demanding that public school students be tested for fever every morning. They avoided licking stamps at the post office. At the public’s urging, the New York Public Library began sending all of its returned books to the health department to be fumigated, and banks sterilized their coins.

But in the madness, no feature of American life fared worse than the beard. Health reformers began to zero in on whiskers as nesting places of disease. William H. Park, a doctor at the New York Board of Health, banned bearded men from working directly with milk supplies, announcing in 1901 that “there is real menace to the milk if the dairyman is bearded.” According to Park, the science was clear: “The beard, particularly when damp, may become an ideal germ carrier, and on an unclean man would have great facility for the transmission of disease.”

Park’s central idea — that whiskers entrap germs, funneling disease toward anything they touch — has no factual basis. In terms of bacterial shedding, “there is no difference in bearded and non-bearded men,” said Carrie Kovarik, an associate professor of dermatology and medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. In her study of the phenomenon, Dr. Kovarik found that bearded people might actually carry fewer germs than their clean-shaven counterparts — perhaps because the “micro-trauma” that shaving inflicts on the skin opens up space for bacteria to congregate. But while Park’s lactic fearmongering might seem like the bygone panic of another era, the associations of beards with disease have proven strangely resilient.

In February, news outlets seized on a 2017 CDC infographic that showed how certain types of facial hair intrude on medical face masks. The CDC was not commenting on the cleanliness of beards, much less on their ability to spread Covid-19, but that didn’t stop the Daily Mail from exclaiming, “Could your facial hair put you at risk for the coronavirus?” These articles marked the resurgence of an old trope: In times of viral epidemic, beards become a scapegoat.

”Of course these anti-beard ideas are wrong, but the idea that beards are ‘dirty’ and harbor germs is a staple of 20th and 21st century thought, especially the early 20th century,” said Christopher Oldstone-Moore, a professor of history at Wright State University and a self-described beard historian.

When the New York Board of Health, in conjunction with the Milk Commission of the Medical Society of the County of New York, banned milkmen from growing beards in 1901, they were hewing to the new medical narrative on facial hair. In the 1890s, nurses had started shaving patients’ beards to bring down their risk of transmitting disease, pointing to studies suggesting that beards could accidentally entrap tuberculosis-laden spittle. In 1902, a syndicated newspaper editorial entitled “Shave The Microbe Infested Beard” made the hygienic case for abandoning facial hair, throwing out dubious claims like “doctors who wear beards report greater mortality among their patients than those who do not.” The editorial, which appeared in Rochester’s Democrat and Chronicle, the Dayton Daily News, and other newspapers, even pointed out that “most of the plague infected nations have worn beards,” only adding as an afterthought, “but that might be a coincidence.”

According to the piece, Americans were taking the anti-beard hysteria to heart. After an informal survey of Manhattan, the writer claimed that, unlike “some years ago when every third man on Broadway wore a beard,” he counted only 5 percent of men sporting beards. “It will not be long before we will be as whiskerless a race as in the days of Napoleon,” he concluded.

Anti-beard fears carried into the last major pandemic in American history: the 1918 Spanish flu. In 1916, just two years before the pandemic, doctors lambasted “the number of bacteria and noxious germs that may lurk in the Amazonian jungles of a well-whiskered face” for facilitating the spread of “measles, scarlet fever, diphtheria, tuberculosis, whooping cough.” By the time the flu pandemic struck the US in 1918, beards were declining in popularity, according to the Museum of Health Care.

 Time Life Pictures/National Archives/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images
Clean shaven policemen with masks during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic.

That drop-off can be traced to factors beyond just hygiene. Oldstone-Moore said that while germ theory was a factor in the fall of the American beard, it was probably “not a decisive one.” In his mind, the shifting masculinity that linked a clean-shaven face to “youthful vitality” and “professionalism” was the biggest driver of the new shaving vogue. Another important variable: the rise of Gillette’s first disposable razor, which let people shave their beards outside the confines of the barbershop. But the mounting health concerns, paired with the arrival of a true flu pandemic, meant that Americans couldn’t ditch their beards quickly enough.

This imagined link between beards and disease, however, is a surprisingly modern phenomenon. “Explanations for the Black Death, for example, involved ideas of poisoned water, corrupted air, the evil alignment of the planets, or simply the wrath of God,” said Oldstone-Moore. “Beards, at least, did not get any blame.” Before people knew germs existed, facial hair was not so easy to scapegoat.

In fact, prior to Robert Koch isolating Mycobacterium tuberculosis in 1882 and proving that germs facilitated the spread of tuberculosis, beards were enjoying a high watermark in the US and Europe. After a longtime association with political radicalism, beards were a hot commodity — both as a marker of white masculinity, as Sean Trainor notes in “The Racially Fraught History of the American Beard,” as well as a signal of health.

Before germ theory, people believed that disease spread through “fumes and dust,” and beards acted as a kind of air filter to block out illness. The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal first hypothesized as such in 1843, publishing a letter that urged doctors to tell their sick patients to grow beards. “We believe it to be a fact which cannot be controverted, that with those nations where the hair and beard are worn long, the people are more hardy and robust and much less subject to diseases, particularly of a pulmonary character, than those who shave,” the journal wrote.

Even in 1881, just a year before the discovery of the tuberculosis bacteria, The St. James’s Magazine insisted that the fastest way to ward off disease was to grow a beard. Borrowing from a study of French railway workers, the magazine noted that when 53 participants shaved their beards, in the following few years, 39 fell ill.

But that logic would hardly survive the decade. The new skepticism for facial hair spread so rapidly that it reshaped industries well outside of medicine. In France, restaurants became convinced that clean-shaven waiters were less likely to contaminate the food they served, and a 1907 bill to ban mustaches led to a general strike among the Parisian server class. Waiters claimed that such a law “under a democratic republic is grotesque and humiliating.” Even the education sector felt reverberations of the panic. In April 1910, the Fresno Morning Republican announced that the California health board was requiring all male teachers to shave their facial hair, believing that “mustaches and other beards are lurking places of disease germs and hence are likely to cause disease to spread.”

We tend to forget just how profoundly epidemics can impact our culture. As WIRED noted recently, Covid-19 is well positioned to reshape our relationship to handshakes, in large part because warnings from public health authorities strike at such a primal level. King Henry VI’s ban on kissing during the Black Plague, for instance, explains why even today the British are less likely than their European counterparts to kiss on the cheek as a greeting.

Given that the CDC is not calling for regular people to shave their beards, a health-conscious shaving movement probably will not emerge during Covid-19 — unless, of course, Maluma starts one. The only people abandoning their beards in large numbers right now are first responders, doctors, and other medical professionals that have to make room for respiratory masks. But the panic over the CDC chart suggests that beards haven’t fully escaped their tuberculosis-era reputation — and in times of pandemic, side-eyeing heavily whiskered friends might be an unfortunate national pastime.

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Author: Michael Waters

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