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Can Hair Turn White Overnight?

Marie Antoinette - Her Hair Social Studies World History Biographies

Marie Antoinette gave a lock of her hair to Lady Abercorn. Today that lock of hair is in the British Museum where we learn more about the lock (and its provenance):

A lock of hair of MARIE ANTOINETTE, Queen of FRANCE given by her to Lady Abercorn by whom it was given to her sister Lady Julia Lockwood, whose daughter Lady Napier gave it to W.S. 1853.

A curator, from the British Museum, also notes that the lock must have been given by Marie Antoinette before 1791 since, during a particularly frightening time that year, her hair reportedly turned white overnight. 

Madame Campan writes about the color-changing event (and how Marie Antoinette viewed it) when the Queen sent a different lock of hair—now white—to Princesse de Lamballe.  Her words, then, were these:

Blanchis par la malheur ("whitened by misfortune"). (See Memoirs of Madame Campan, 1785-1792, at page 74.) 

Although some accounts tell us that Marie Antoinette's hair turned white the night before she was executed, that is not what Madame Campan—her close companion—writes:

The first time I saw her Majesty after the unfortunate catastrophe of the Varennes journey [when the King and Queen tried to escape the revolutionaries in Paris but were stopped, in Varennes, not far from today's French-Belgian border], I found her getting out of bed; her features were not very much altered; but after the first kind words she uttered to me she took off her cap and desired me to observe the effect which grief had produced upon her hair. It had become, in one single night, as white as that of a woman of seventy. (See Memoirs of Madame Campan, in English translation, at page 108.)

Certainly Marie Antoinette would have been extremely frightened, when she and her husband were forced to return to Paris after their attempted escape, but could that event have caused her hair to turn white overnight? Is it even possible for someone's hair to whiten overnight?

A different story, from the relatively recent past, provides another example of a person’s hair turning white soon after an unnerving, harrowing experience.

It is the 24th of June, 1982, when Captain Eric Moody takes his left seat in the cockpit of a Boeing 747 being flown as British Air Flight 009. The weather is good, with a clear sky, and the crew prepares for an overnight flight from Kuala Lumpur to Perth. In addition to the crew, 239 passengers are on board the jumbo jet.

As the passengers are about to start watching the movie “On Golden Pond,” a major catastrophe begins to envelop the plane. No one on board knows it, but on the ground below—on the island of Java—a volcano, known as Galunggun, is erupting.

The volcanic ash impacts the airplane, causing an engine to stop.

After the engine fails, the crew experiences another stopped engine. Then another. Then another. Within minutes, the plane has no working engines.

The remarkable tale, of how Moody and his flight-deck crew save their plane and passengers, is an example of true heroism and expert airmanship.

Although he handles the whole ordeal without showing outward stress, something happens to Moody. Claudia Hammond tells us what occurs in an article she wrote for the BBC:

...within six months of the incident he noticed that the tip of his quiff had turned white. Within a year the rest of his hair had done the same.

Captain Moody is not alone. The same thing is said to have happened to several historical figures, but in a far shorter time frame.

When the French queen, Marie Antoinette was led to the guillotine at the age of 37, her hair is said to have turned white the night before in anticipation of her execution. The English lawyer Sir Thomas More, who was later canonised, was executed in the Tower of London in 1535, and again his hair was reported to have turned white before his death. (See "Can stress turn your hair grey overnight?"—by Claudia Hammond—published by the BBC on 16 October 2012.)

If a person’s hair can turn gray—or white—overnight, what causes this to happen?

Claudia Hammond tells us more about the scientific process at work with someone like Captain Moody:

Hair gets its colour from two types of melanin pigment – eumelanin which dictates how dark the hair is, and pheomelanin which determines how red or yellow it is. As we age, the cells in hair follicles stop producing these pigments and the resulting hairs are colourless. Eventually, the overall effect of a combination of coloured and colourless hair, especially in people with dark hair, is grey.

The process behind this is not well understood. One study showed that hair naturally greys through the same chemical used to bleach hair from bottles. The idea proposed from studies in mice is that melanin-making cells produce hydrogen peroxide, which is normally broken down by an enzyme called catalase. However, production of the enzyme drops as we age, and the build-up of hydrogen peroxide blocks melanin production.

The medical name for the sudden whitening of the hair is canities subita. The best explanation for it is not that the hair changes colour, but that the pigmented hairs fall out. A condition called alopecia ariata causes the hair shed suddenly, resulting in bald patches. It is thought to be caused by an auto-immune response, where the body’s defence system turns on itself. It can be exacerbated by stress, which could account for the association of white hair with terrifying experiences [such as that of a 23-year-old soldier, reported by "Scientific American" on October 30, 1915, who was involved in a terrifying incident during WWI]. In some cases the white hairs are unaffected by the condition.

So a severe shock could trigger hair loss, but with only the coloured hairs falling out, leaving someone who already has some grey with a whole head of white hair. Or perhaps the immune response might target the pigment-producing system, which would explain why those no follicles no longer producing coloured hair are unaffected.

It took Captain Moody’s hair one year to completely change color. But ... how do we explain Marie Antoinette’s quick-change situation (which was also witnessed by her companion, Madame Campan)?

Ms. Hammond tells us about research by a Nobel-Prize Laureate, Robert Lefkowitz, who found some interesting goings-on in the world of mice:

Last year [that would be 2011], a study from a research group led by no less than one of this year’s recipients of the Nobel prize in Chemistry, Robert Lefkowitz, offered some clues. They outlined a mechanism through which a hallmark of chronic stress causes DNA damage in mice that could lead to conditions like greying hair.

The puzzle of whether your hair can turn grey sounds like a simple one for medical science to solve, but it’s not. Ultimately, to study exactly what happens you would need to examine the hair before and after a shocking incident, carefully assessing its colour and thickness. Life-threatening situations are not only rare, but unpredictable and no ethics committee is going to let you induce a sufficiently terrifying experience in a lab volunteer.

Yet there is something about the idea of hair changing colour through shock that is fascinating. Maybe it’s the idea that the body reveals more than we think, that underneath the impressive calmness which allowed Captain Moody to save the lives of 247 passengers, his body was telling a different story. (All Hammond quotes from "Can stress turn your hair grey overnight?" published by the BBC on 16 October 2012.)

Clearly, at the time the Queen’s hair-color changed, Marie Antoinette’s body was undergoing tremendous stress and shock. For her, nearly every new day brought another new stress as she worried about the lives of her husband and children (not to mention her own life).

As with so many other scientific inquiries, however, we have more to learn about the mysteries of how our bodies respond to outside forces and internal stresses. For the time being, science has not given us a complete understanding of the hair-turning-white-overnight phenomenon.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5124stories and lessons created

Original Release: Oct 07, 2013

Updated Last Revision: Apr 09, 2017


Media Credits

Image online, via Possessions of a Lady.Blogspot—the actual object is maintained by the British Museum.

 

 

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