In 1895 Wilhelm Roentgen made one of the most famous medical discoveries of all time when he noticed that a beam of electrons passing through a partially evacuated tube gave off invisible rays that caused fluorescent materials to glow. Intrigued by this observation he put his hand in front of a fluorescent screen and noted that an image of his bones formed. Apparently bones blocked the novel mysterious rays which were christened x-rays. It wasn’t long before physicians were using x-rays to peer into the human body. But they did note a side effect. X-rays made hair fall out. That gave Austrian physician Leopold Freund an idea. Why not use x-rays to get rid of unwanted body hair? It certainly seemed to be an improvement over tweezing or using strong alkalis. Early reports of x-ray hair removal were very positive. Even a bearded lady was said to have been cured of her affliction. When some women in France complained that the treatment had made them sick, Freund retorted that this was to be expected from the French who had a “hysterical character.” American physician Albert Geyser who had experimented with x-rays jumped on the bandwagon despite being painfully aware of the risks. He had lost a couple of fingers on his left hand due to x-ray burns. But this had stimulated him to create an x- ray tube which he claimed delivered “softer” rays. Soon the Tricho Sales Corporation was born, and clinics using Geyser’s technology began to sprout up around the U.S. and Canada. Women flocked to the clinics and reveled in their new, hairless skin. But not for long. Soon there were complaints of wrinkled skin and lesions where the supposedly safe x-rays struck and by 1929 the evidence for damage was so clear that the Journal of the American Medical Association published an article noting that women “in their endeavour to remove a minor blemish, have incurred a major injury.” Nobody really knows how many cancers were triggered by exposure to depilatory x-rays, but it’s a good bet that thousands of women suffered the consequences of what turned out to be a reckless application of a very useful technology.
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