As parents of school age children ponder hand-wringing or action over the recent epidemic of “super lice” reported in 25 states since the start of 2016, it’s worth noting that dealing with lice is far from a new phenomenon. Lice have been, for better or worse, part of the human experience for centuries. In fact, for as long as we’ve been humans, we’ve had lice. Scientific American notes:
Humans and apes are supposed to have parted evolutionary ways at about the 6 million year mark. The Pediculus genus seems to have split at the same time, with Pediculus schaeffi hitching a ride with the chimp lineage, and Pediculus humanus sticking with what would become the Homo line.
In layman’s terms, what this means is that pediculus has affected us ever since the dawn of our kind and has evolved along with us. While our desire to remove them has waxed and waned since then, remedies natural and unnatural have always existed in some form. Read on for a brief history of how we’ve dealt with lice, and take note of how everything new is, in some ways, old again.
Early Removal: Lice Combs in Egypt and Europe
Ancient Egyptian mummies were embalmed and preserved to allow them to venture into the afterlife intact. As it happens, that intact state included “with lice.” Mummified Egyptians have been found with lice in what remains of their hair, and their tombs also contained nit-removal combs that strongly resemble the ones we use today to remove nits and nymphs from our own hair.
These combs turn up again in history, in English and Italian antiques, and are indicative of the desire we have always had to try and manage the lice population. Even when bathing was seen as less necessary than it is today, there was a desire to keep infestations at bay.
Tyranny Against Typhus
The removal of lice became a far more urgent wish in the 1600s, when it was noted that they played a key role in the spread of typhus. A big killer during colonial times, and well into the 1800s, it soon became difficult to ignore that incidences of typhus were being spread quickly in communities that also endured lice:
An infected louse turns red and dies within a few weeks of infection, but not before it bites and infects its human host. Before succumbing, however, the insect can also poop out millions of typhus bacteria, which can hang on clothing like a toxic dust, infecting others who never have a body louse near them.
Typhus wiped out large swaths of the population for hundreds of years before the connection was made by Charles Nicolle between the communication of typhus and the presence of lice. He worked on vaccines to help prevent the disease, and ultimately affected how lice spread disease in this country. For his efforts, Nicolle received the Nobel Prize in Medicine.
The next decade, Harvard Medical School researcher Hans Zinsser wrote more extensively about the connection between disease transmission and the presence of lice, and continued to work to dissociate typhus from these ever-present pests. The work of Nicolle and Zinsser made a marked difference; in fact, lice in the Western world presently carry no threat of disease.
Modern Day: Natural Remedies
In later years, housewives and mothers recognized that use of stifling or suffocation agents on the scalp, such as mayonnaise, oil, or Vaseline. These alternatives to dangerous neurotoxic agents like DDT seemed to kill off lice through the shutdown of their respiratory systems.
However, as lice have continued to evolve into the “super lice” we see today, these efforts are becoming less and less effective. Some argue that they rarely were. Lice have the ability to shut down their respiratory systems for the duration of treatments like that, and therefore are harder to kill off in this fashion.
The most recent iterations of natural treatments are competing successfully with now ineffective pyrethrins and permethrins with a combination of enzymes, proteins, and essential oils that can crack lice’s protective exoskeletons. As we mentioned above, what is old becomes new again, as CDC recommendations are calling for the same manual combing that was helping our ancient Egyptian ancestors keep lice at bay so many centuries ago.
So, don’t worry that the go-to, chemical laden remedies are seemingly powerless against the current strain of lice. Other options exist to combat this pest of an ailment, and, it seems, always have.