Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

White With Fright

July 10th, 2009 · 3 Comments

There’s an anecdote in Now the Hell Will Start regarding an Assamese tea planter whose arm was chomped off by a Bengal tiger. According to the primary source—a diary kept by an American officer—the trauma of the incident caused the poor planter’s hair to turn white virtually overnight. (The specific time span isn’t mentioned, but the tone of the entry makes it sound like the whitening happened right quick.)

At least one critic of the book has noted that the hair-whitening aspect of the tale sounds apocryphal. And, no question, it does seem to defy medical logic. But, lo and behold, there’s actually a lengthy history (PDF) of such sudden shifts in the tint of human locks. And another case of canities subita was just reported in the Archives of Dermatology.

As it turns out, the very first mention of this condition in the (quasi-)scientific literature dates back to 1604, and a French text called Chronique d’Arras. The passage in translation:

A young gentlemen of the court of Emperor Charles V, becoming in love with a young lady, went so far, that partly from love, partly by force, he plucked the flower of her virginity: which having been discovered he was imprisoned, especially because the act was committed on the premises of the Emperor, and he was condemned to lose his head. Then, having been informed that evening that his life would be ended on the following day, this very same night was for him so fearful and had such an effect on him, that the next morning leaving the jail to appear before the judge to hear his death sentence, nobody recognised him, not even the Emperor, because fright had so changed him that instead of having as yesterday a fine red color, blond hair, pleasant eyes and a face to be looked at with pleasure, he had become like an unearthed corpse and had the hair and beard as white as a septuagenarian. The Emperor, suspecting that another criminal had been substituted, ordered an inquiry, how came this wonderful and sudden change. His desire of just vengeance changed to that of pity and he pardoned the young man, saying that the prisoner had already been sufficiently chastised.

Our own hair is turning white at a slightly slower pace, albeit much more quickly than our liking. We blame Microkhan Jr.

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