death, diseases, love, museums and collections, remedies

The ‘Rapunzel syndrome’

Who’s your favourite Disney princess? How about the lovely Rapunzel, whose long golden hair – according to ‘Tangled’ (2010) – has healing properties? Every now and then I come across a disorder or a remedy I had not only never heard about, but had never imagined… Such is ‘Rapunzel syndrome’. To backtrack a little, and – trust me! – this does all connect, when I was a visiting professor in Vienna I used to spend as much time as I could in the amazing Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna looking at the wonders and marvels collected by the Hapsburg rulers. Among these were some ornately decorated bezoars:

bezoar_kunsthistorisches_museum_vienne_09042013

If you know your Harry Potter, you’ll have met these in the first year of Potions classes, but bezoars are a real part of medical history. They are formed from indigestible material that accumulates in the stomach and intestines: cellulose from fruit and vegetables… and hair. While they often come from goats, any mammal – including humans – can form them. The name is Arabic in origin, and means ‘expelling poison’, because these were used as remedies against poison, and were also believed to protect against being poisoned in the first place, so by adding one to a drink, you made it safe. In their ‘raw’ form they look like these:

But in the early modern world they also acquired a range of further medical powers. They were surprisingly light for their size and appearance, and easy to scrape, so that pieces could be ground up and dissolved to be used in a range of remedies. So in Aristotle’s Experienced Midwife a child with worms, if there is also a fever, should be given a remedy containing lemon juice, pomegranates, oranges, vinegar, hartshorn, bezoar and confection of hyacinth.

Ambroise Paré described wealthy sixteenth-century people taking a dose of bezoar twice a year in order to preserve their youth, and tells the story of an experiment performed on a cook who was due to be hanged for stealing silver, but who agreed instead to take poison and bezoar in the hope that he would survive. He didn’t. Paré concluded that no one remedy can be effective against every sort of poison.

Experiments in the 1990s suggest that bezoars do work, against arsenic; and for one of the two toxic parts of arsenic, it is neutralized by ‘bonding to sulphate compounds in the protein of degraded hair, a key component in bezoars’ (Barroso 2013). Hair again. I mentioned that bezoars can form in humans too. Back to Rapunzel! In Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant musical take on fairy tales, ‘Into the Woods’, the prince who longs for Rapunzel describes her:

High in her tower she sits by the hour

Maintaining her hair

Blithe and becoming and frequently humming

A light-hearted air.

He goes on to observe to the prince who has fallen for Sleeping Beauty that:

You know nothing of madness

‘Til you’re climbing her hair.

All that hair can pose a danger. Modern medicine recognizes a rare condition in which people – almost always girls or young women – eat their own hair, which eventually forms a mass that blocks digestion and which has to be removed. The hair can not only fill the stomach, but even have a long ‘tail’ extending into the intestines, like Rapunzel’s long hair hanging down from her window. While this condition has been known since at least the eighteenth century, only in 1968 was it named: ‘the ‘Rapunzel syndrome’. So it’s not the Disney healing hair: it’s a potential cause of death!

To find out more:
M. D. S. Barroso, ‘Bezoar stones, magic, science and art’, Geological Society of London Special Publications 11/2013; 375(1):193-207.

C. Malcom, ‘Bezoar stones’ (1998), http://www.melfisher.org/pdf/Bezoar_Stones.pdf

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