Beards are as common as Tootsie Rolls these days, but before they cycled in and out of our lives solely on the whims of fashion they did so at the whims of medicine.
According to the medical historian Alun Withey:
“By 1850 doctors were beginning to encourage men to wear beards as a means of warding off illness.”
More than just a symbolic gesture to ward off ill health, historian Christopher Oldstone-Moore of Wright State University suggests that beards were viewed as a type of filter pre-empting the mouth and nasal passages. This theory is underlined by an obsession with air quality throughout the Victorian era, Oldstone-Moore claims. Thick beards filtered impurities from being inhaled into the body.
Other doctors of the time period thought of beards in a more literal sense, as a sort of blanket or hat for your face and neck — nature’s scarf. A thick beard could relax a stiff and sore throat — great for singers and public speakers.
Before laughing too much, though, consider that the context of medicine at the time made such theories fairly plausible medicine. Hair certainly does function as a type of filter in ears and nasal passages. Most body hair acts as a filter for at least sweat, if not dust, pollen and other airborne particulates. The theory of “germs” was just picking up steam, as well, in the Victorian era. At the same time, air pollution was quite thick.
According to the EPA:
“By the mid 1800’s, more than a million London residents were burning soft-coal, and winter ‘fogs’ became more than a nuisance. An 1873 coal-smoke saturated fog, thicker and more persistent than natural fog, hovered over the city [for] days. As we now know from subsequent epidemiological findings, the fog caused 268 deaths from bronchitis. Another fog in 1879 lasted from November to March, four long months of sunshineless gloom.”
Of course, medicine has swung a complete 180 since the Victorian era, claiming now that beards are bacteria magnets that could contribute to making one ill, but the truth, as usual, is likely somewhere in the middle.
Modern medicine would likely fight you to the death defending its current position on the wellness impact of beards, but so might have the Victorian doctors from their limited horizons.
So, the next time your wife, girlfriend, husband or boyfriend tells you they won’t stand for a beard, it might not hurt to see what your doctor can do for you.
Dylan Hock is a writer, professor, videographer and social activist. He earned an MFA in Writing from Naropa University in 2003 and has been an Occupier since Oct., 2011, both nationally and locally in Michigan. He is published in a number of little magazines and has an essay on the muzzling of Ezra Pound included in the anthology Star Power: The Impact Of Branded Celebrity due out July of 2014 by Praeger. He is also a contributing writer for Take Ten, Addicting Info and Green Action News. Follow him on Google+!