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  • Removing Roots “North American Hiroshima Maidens” and the X Ray
  • Rebecca Herzig (bio)

On 25 February 1940, an officer with the San Francisco police department’s homicide detail reported a “rather suspicious business” operating in the city. At 126 Jackson Street sat an old, three-story rooming house, recently leased by Dr. Henri F. St. Pierre of the Dermic Laboratories. As Assistant Special Agent J. W. Williams later described the scene, “women had been seen entering the place from the Jackson Street side at various times of the day, subsequently leaving by . . . an alley at the rear of the building. Following the arrival of the women, cars would arrive with a man carrying a case resembling . . . a doctor’s kit. They would also enter the building for a short time, come out, and drive away. . . .” 1 At first sight, the medical kit, the furtive departures, and the seedy locale all signaled to Williams that St. Pierre was running a “new abortion parlor.” 2 As it turned out, however, “the so-called ‘Dr.’” was offering a somewhat different service to these women: the removal of their unwanted body hair through prolonged exposure to X rays.

At the time of Williams’s writing the practice of removing hair with x-radiation was thoroughly disreputable—if not illegal—in most of North America. By 1940, health officials and X-ray clients had long since realized [End Page 723] that intense doses of ionizing radiation not only removed hair, but also led to other, dangerous physiological changes. Articles lambasting the potentially lethal practice had been appearing regularly in medical journals and popular magazines since the early 1920s, and these articles only became more graphic with the passage of time. In 1947, an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association described in gruesome detail dozens of cases of cancer resulting from depilatory applications of x-radiation. 3 In 1970, a team of researchers found that more than 35 percent of all radiation-induced cancer in women could be traced to X-ray hair removal. 4 In 1989, two Canadian physicians suggested a new name for the widespread pattern of scarring, ulceration, cancer, and death that affected former epilation clients: “North American Hiroshima maiden syndrome.” 5

Although physicians might now liken X-ray hair removal to international atomic attack, the analogy obscures several of the most crucial aspects of the history of this technology. To begin, unlike the famous “Hiroshima Maidens” (twenty-five young bomb survivors brought to the U.S. for plastic surgery in 1955), epilation clients were anything but the unsuspecting targets of foreign military action. 6 As Williams’ 1940 description of back-alley hair removal makes clear, these individuals were not “passive victims” but willing participants in the diffusion and persistence of a controversial technology. 7 Moreover, unlike the atomic explosions that punctuated the summer of 1945, X-ray hair removal was not a dramatic [End Page 724] aberration in the history of technology. Rather, from its first use among professional physicians in 1898 through its slow demise in the late 1940s, X-ray epilation enjoyed nearly fifty years of continuous practice. One 1947 investigation concluded that thousands of Americans visited a single X-ray hair removal company, the Tricho Sales Corporation. 8 Since Tricho was just one of dozens of similar X-ray epilation companies in operation in the 1920s and 1930s, one can conclude that tens of thousands—if not hundreds of thousands—of other American women also irradiated themselves in order to remove unwanted body hair. 9

Rather than focusing on the eventual physiological impacts of X-ray epilation, a tragic story already told in meticulous detail by medical reports, this article explores the circumstances in which prolonged, repeated self-irradiation seemed appealing to its myriad users and promoters. Understanding the practice’s allure requires consideration of two questions: first, why did so many early-twentieth-century American women wish to remove their body hair? Second, why would some women choose the X ray over other available hair removal technologies? The answers to these questions, we will see, quickly lead from X rays and hair to larger problems of race, sex, and science in the interwar period.