Hair! Mankind’s Historic Quest to End Baldness

bald man looking up at hair loss


“We are living in a golden age of baldness, my friends. Now, more than at any other time in human history, baldness is on the run.”

So begins Hair! Mankind’s Historic Quest to End Baldness (At Books, 2001), Gersh Kuntzman’s entertaining and very informative book about hair loss and efforts to disguise it, cure it or live with it. In 173 pages, Kuntzman provides an overview of societal views of baldness; the psychological ramifications of hair loss; a history of snake oil hair cures and their salespeople; methods of disguising baldness, such as toupees, hair weaves, spray-on hair and transplants; the arrival of drugs for hair growth; scientific studies in hair cloning and gene therapy for hair; hair loss advocates; and positive hair loss attitudes.

It’s a lot to fit into one volume, but a number of other books on the subject cover much the same ground. Many of these other books tend toward a chummy, insider take on the subject that assumes the reader is a member of the bald club. Their tone is essentially light and very subjective. This is one area in which Hair! differs: It is basically a serious, objective look at baldness. Calling it serious doesn’t mean it’s not funny or that it’s heavy reading; it merely means that Kuntzman, a journalist, treats it as an extended newspaper story, giving it an admirable degree of research.

Readers shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that this approach makes Hair! dry reading. In fact, Hair! is a pleasure to read from beginning to end.

Bald_Book_reviewOne may not necessarily agree with everything that Kuntzman states. He sprinkles his objective reporting with moments of opinion and is unafraid to sidestep the narrative for an amusing or quirky comment, some of which may cause a reaction from his audience. This reader, for example, got a bit weary of skeptical (albeit humorous) comments about the need for quite so much minutely focused research studies on matters related to hair growth and its absence.

Some readers may also take exception to the fact that Kuntzman does not suffer from hair loss and therefore may not be able to understand what hair loss means to a bald man; however, the author is quite sympathetic to how baldness can affect a person, and his own hairy state gives him a slightly different slant that is quite welcome.

Kuntzman’s experience as a journalist is evident in his ability to capture the telling detail and to provide evocative turns of phrases that are just right for an occasion. “Exoticism was the rule of the day,” he writes when describing one snake oil saleswoman who claimed her miracle product was derived from a rare South American plant when it actually came from a common weed.

The most gripping writing comes earlier in the chapter on the era of bogus cures. In the first eight pages of that section, Kuntzman details the repulsive work of one Charles Alfred Jenson, a Los Angeles doctor who in the 1940s claimed he could cure baldness. His treatment consisted of injecting a special mixture (eventually revealed to be candle wax) into the scalps of his patients for some half dozen years before skipping town to avoid prosecution. As might be expected, the treatments did not produce hair, but they did produce lumps in the patients’ skulls as the wax congealed and hardened. The men, already distraught over their hair loss, were caused further anguish because of the misshapen and deformed appearance of their heads. One, a promising animator at Disney named John Bessor, suffered so that he gave up his job and spent the rest of his days tormented and obsessed, eking out a living on a small farm.

The wife of another victim described the painful surgical procedure her husband underwent some years after Jenson’s injections. “They literally had to scrape Harold’s skull to get it all,” she said.

Kuntzman’s scorn for and condemnation of Jenson — he notes his Hitler-like mustache and compares him to Mengele — are clear, but he also views the American Medical Association’s handling of the situation with considerable contempt. When a doctor who removed the wax from under a patient’s scalp sent it to the AMA, he was told, “Our lab is not set up to examine waxes.” When John Bessor contacted the AMA to say that Jenson should be prosecuted, the response was that it wasn’t their job, because Jenson wasn’t a member of the organization. This is certainly true, but it also certainly seems to be a less-than-adequate response to reports of a man performing dangerous medical procedures on gullible individuals.

In another chapter the author gives higher marks to Rogaine and Propecia than one might expect, although this may due to the fact that in 2001, when the book was published, less was known about limitations associated with the drugs.

Happily, any reservations concerning Hair! are minor ones. Those interested in a good read that educates as it engages should give it a try.