Saturday, September 15, 2007


A Forgotten Women's Health Scandal

I'm in New Scientist this week with the most disturbing bit of history I think I've ever written about -- it's about the "Tricho System" of the 1920s:

Tucked between pleas for the return of a travelling case left on the subway and a brown leather purse lost at the Polo Grounds, the New York Times’ Lost & Found column for 27 July 1923 contained this curious ad: “FOUR FIELD MICE lost from laboratory, 244 W 74th St., each mouse has a round bald spot on the right side caused by scientific experimentation. $20 reward for each mouse returned dead or alive to Dr. Albert C. Geyser, 244 W. 74th St.” New Yorkers were not to know it, but those fugitive mice were harbingers of one of the worst medical disasters of their time....

The disaster in question was Geyser's opening a chain of salons across the country in 1925, promising women "painless hair removal" in just minutes -- which is indeed exactly what they got. What they were not told was that the mysterious Tricho treatment actually consisted of.... massive doses of X-ray radiation.

In perhaps the least-known American medical scandal of the 20th century, tens of thousands of woman in the 1920s through 1940s -- and the number might even reach into the 6 figures -- received X-ray radiation to their faces and arms. After an initial wave of skin ailments and lawsuits, the real extent of the damage took much longer to show up --

Decades later, a second wave of Tricho injuries emerged: tell-tale scarring, wrinkling, and advanced cancers that, as one doctor in Toronto put it, were “obvious stigmata of radiation exposure”. One 80-year-old patient arrived with a grapefruit-sized tumour in her head; another refused treatment until she had “a huge and deep crater occupying practically the whole lower half of the breast and the chest wall immediately below it”. By 1970, US researchers were attributing over one-third of radiation-induced cancers in women to X-ray hair removal.

One 1989 study in the medical journal Surgery coined this term to describe the patients they were seeing: "North American Hiroshima Maiden Syndrome."

These injuries emerged so slowly that they received scarcely any media attention. The great mass of my sources were medical journals. The Times, for instance, has not written a single article in the last 80 years on the Tricho scandal. Not one. They certainly have had reason to: Tricho's NYC clinic boasted of having 20,000 patients alone.

Among new findings that my research turned up was that Tricho was getting sued by early test patients even as their system was getting launched; more hauntingly, I uncovered the fate of Tricho's most prominent celebrity endorser, the famed Ziegfield star Ann Pennington.

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