A Brief History of Beards and PandemicsHistorians in the News
tags: public health, Disease, coronavirus, beard, 1918 Spanish flu
In the first years of the 20th century, New York City was in the throes of a tuberculosis hysteria. Although the disease had been an epidemic in the US since the mid-1800s, the rise of germ theory proved, for the first time, that tuberculosis was contagious. People panicked. As Frank M. Snowden recounted in his book Epidemics and Society, New Yorkers began demanding that public school students be tested for fever every morning. They avoided licking stamps at the post office. At the public’s urging, the New York Public Library began sending all of its returned books to the health department to be fumigated, and banks sterilized their coins.
But in the madness, no feature of American life fared worse than the beard. Health reformers began to zero in on whiskers as nesting places of disease. William H. Park, a doctor at the New York Board of Health, banned bearded men from working directly with milk supplies, announcing in 1901 that “there is real menace to the milk if the dairyman is bearded.” According to Park, the science was clear: “The beard, particularly when damp, may become an ideal germ carrier, and on an unclean man would have great facility for the transmission of disease.”
Park’s central idea — that whiskers entrap germs, funneling disease toward anything they touch — has no factual basis. In terms of bacterial shedding, “there is no difference in bearded and non-bearded men,” said Carrie Kovarik, an associate professor of dermatology and medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. In her study of the phenomenon, Dr. Kovarik found that bearded people might actually carry fewer germs than their clean-shaven counterparts — perhaps because the “micro-trauma” that shaving inflicts on the skin opens up space for bacteria to congregate. But while Park’s lactic fearmongering might seem like the bygone panic of another era, the associations of beards with disease have proven strangely resilient.