The Absurd Things Doctors Thought About Redheads

Rumors, superstitions, and teasing often surround people with red hair. In recent memory, an episode of "South Park" highlighted the danger of gingervitus, a disease which afflicts children with red hair — "Ginger Kids" — because they have no soul (via Fandom). Historically, many depictions of one of the most ostracized individuals in the Bible, Judas Iscariot, paint him as a redhead (via British Medical Journal).

One theory for the long-held animosity toward red-haired individuals in England is explained in historical context. Red-hair aversion in England might go back to a dislike of the Danish invaders, who often had red beards (via Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology). The cruel tempers of the invaders were perhaps thought to be linked to the scarlet locks.

Red hair is a rare trait — only around 1% to 2% of people are sporting it naturally. Over the decades, even the medical community has formed its own superstitions and theories concerning redheads. While there are surprising medical characteristics possessed by redheads, other antiquated ideas have persisted long after the true cause for the hair trait was discovered.

Criminals are not more likely to be redheads

What can hair color tell you about personality? A lot, thought a 1940s doctor, Dr. Hans von Hentig. In his article "Redhead and Outlaw — A Study in Criminal Anthropology," Dr. von Hentig set out to prove red heads were trouble (via Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology). Dr. von Hentig examined records from the Wild West, looking at statistics on famous criminals' eye and hair color. Then he claimed the number of redheaded outlaws "surpassed their rate in the normal population." To the good doctor, redheads were obviously more likely to be criminals due to their "revengeful" nature and were "always sanguine, impetuous, almost heedless." He even claimed they were quicker at drawing their gun thanks to "accelerated motor innervation."

In a classic debate from the pages of the journal, Philip J. Rasch properly served Dr. von Hentig his hat on his unsubstantiated view of redheads. The two openly debated if "bad men" were more likely to be redheaded. Rasch saw no evidence that red hair indicated a fiery temper and demanded evidence of increased innervation.

Unfortunately, proving there are no good guys in this story, Rasch said Dr. von Hentig was wrong, not because it was absurd but because important outlaws were missing from the list. He then suggested a different hair-brained hypothesis. Rasch saw meaning behind the finding that blue eyes composed slightly over 67% of the total outlaws while only 33% of the general population. He supposed eye color could correlate with marksmanship.

Red hair is linked to a higher risk of cancer

It wasn't until 1995 that the gene responsible for red hair and light-colored skin was discovered (via Nature Genetics). When searching for the roots of human coloring, researchers from the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne, England, took a hint from other genetic animal research. In an interview with The New York Times, lead researcher Dr. Anthony J. Thody explained, "many animals have changes in this particular gene, which affects their hair color." When examining this color coding gene, the researchers uncovered the genetics responsible for both hair color and a trait related to cancer.

Dr. Thody and his team took a group of redheads with fair skin and group of dark-haired easy tanners and examined their melanocortin 1 receptor gene, or MC1R. This gene is found in hair and skin pigment cells (via MedLinePlus). Certain versions of the gene can cause pigment cells to produce different amounts and types of pigment.

Of the two common human pigments, eumelanin and pheomelanin, redheads produce less of the eumelanin pigment. Eumelanin helps protect our skin from ultraviolet rays. If you're producing more pheomelanin and less eumelanin, chances are you're either a redhead or a blond, your skin is light in color, and you should invest in sunscreen. While the press went nuts for an explanation of carrot tops, perhaps the more important take-away was the relationship between this gene to a risk of skin cancer.

Red-haired people are not more likely to bleed during or after surgery

Red hair doesn't affect personality, but for years physicians have applied other stereotypes against those with red hair. One common belief still alive in the medical community is that redheads bleed more than other patients in accidents or surgery (via British Medical Journal).

In a charming paper out of The Laryngoscope, Dr. Glenn Isaacson and a small number of researchers sought to set the medical community straight. "Physicians are people and people are superstitious," stated Dr. Isaacson about his medical colleagues (via personal correspondence). "The redhead stuff is everywhere," he went on about the superstitions commonly tossed about in hospital surgical lounges. "Surgeons talk a lot about them bleeding abnormally."

To put this and other redhead rumors to bed, Dr. Isaacson conducted a study on a popular surgery in his field, the tonsillectomy. Digging through the records of Temple University Children's Medical Center, his team took a look at how many red-headed children ended up hemorrhaging after their tonsillectomy. It turns out that they weren't any more likely to bleed than their blond or brunette counterparts. The study goes on to stamp out other superstitions, such as Friday the 13th, full moons, and unlucky bleeds happening in groups of three. Isaacson did not disclose having any redheads in his immediate family.

Red hair people experience pain and respond to drugs differently

While a penchant for bleeding has been proven untrue, other medical differences do significantly separate redheads from the rest of the population. Red-headed people have a complex relationship with pain and pain-related drugs.

Those people with the MC1R gene experience pain at varying amounts compared to others. For example, they might be more sensitive to pain relating to heat and cold (via Anesthesiology). One study in the Journal of Medical Genetics used an electrical current to deliver a small amount of pain, finding that redheads tolerate the shock significantly better than those with the more popular version of the MC1R gene. The researchers also found the redheads got more out of an opioid-based painkiller than non-redhead participants.

However, they seem to be less sensitive and need higher doses of different kinds of painkillers such as lidocaine or the knockout gas desflurane (via Anesthesiology). And just to make all these studies look like red herrings, other research has not seen major differences in redheads' drug requirements or recovery post-surgery (via Anesthesia and Intensive Care). Either way, today's anesthesiologists probably perk up when they have a redheaded patient. Anesthesiologists and dermatologists might be the only people who should treat red-headed people differently.