Delousing people

Written by Noemi Rodriguez

In London, routine health checks were made in schools, welfare houses, and nurseries. During these routine health checks, if lice were discovered, the infected person was sent to a cleansing station.  Every borough in London had either a Personal Cleansing Station or a Medicinal Bath house. These stations were sectioned off into different rooms, each with a different purpose, though it had not always been that way. In Hampstead in 1913, the Medical Officer of Health suggested that the cleansing stations were unsatisfactory as they only contained one room with a screen and no additional room was available for the children to sit and dry themselves after receiving treatment. The officer was concerned about the children catching colds or being chilled after treatment.

In later years, the cleansing stations were expanded to have multiple rooms. One room was a waiting room, where patients could wait for their turn to get treatment. Another room was a dressing room, where patients could get ready before and after treatment. The other three rooms were used for treatment. These were shampoo, bath, and disinfection rooms. In their reports, Medical Officers of Health often outlined the importance of treating lice. One report stated that body lice caused phthiriasis or pediculosis of the body, while head lice caused phthiriasis or pediculosis of the scalp.

The first treatments given for body lice were baths. At the Personal Cleansing Station, an attendant or nurse would tend to the bathing of the patient. The patient was to take a hot bath while washing the whole body with soap. Then, once the patient was dry, the attendant would rub a thin layer of stavesacre ointment all over their body. After this bath, the patient was instructed to wear the same underclothing day and night. The bath and ointment treatment was repeated for three alternate days. This was to ensure that any nits had hatched and those lice were treated as well. After the entire treatment was complete, the patient’s articles of clothing and bedding would be disinfected. The disinfection took place in the disinfection rooms, which not only eliminated lice, but any other vermin that plagued London, such as bed bugs (Velten, 2016.)

L0001410 Ortus sanitatis: de-lousing.
Ortus sanitatis (1491): showing a small boy having his head cleaned of lice. Wellcome Images

For head lice, the treatment included shampooing. One report outlined a treatment prepared with cottonseed oil, tar oil, paraffin oil, and oil of lemon grass in conjunction with a shampoo of soft soap and borax. After the head was washed with this mixture, a comb was to be used to remove nits. The washing and combing was repeated, with the entire treatment taking approximately half an hour per child. The shampoo treatment was also taken care of by an attendant or nurse at the Personal Cleansing Stations. As outlined in the reports, the nurse was to treat the patient with the following steps:

The patient’s head was washed with soft soap and hot water. Then, stavesacre ointment was again used. This time, a thin layer was to be added to the hair, taking care to ensure that each hair follicle was coated. Attendants were also instructed to shave the hair of men and boys, and that girls should cut their hair, but only as short as they dared. This treatment, again was repeated for three alternate days. Once the entire treatment was completed, the pillows and bedding of the patient were sent to the disinfection room.

Delphinium officinale. Credit: Wikimedia commons. Author: Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler’s Medizin-Pflanzen

In both of these treatments, stavesacre, or Delphinium staphisagria was used on the patient. Stavesacre was known as herba pedicularis, lousy herb, or lousewort for it’s known properties to destroy lice (Greive, 1971.) Because of the high concentration of alkaloids in the plant, stavesacre oil was used in different ointments to delouse people. This is also the reason that it is no longer used today, except for in homeopathic medicine. The high concentration of alkaloids makes the plant poisonous to mammals if it is ingested.

Stavesacre was not the only harmful treatment used for lice. One treatment that became widespread in London, and was even encouraged and praised by Medical Officers of Health, was the use of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or D.D.T. The use of D.D.T was popularized because of its efficiency in killing lice and preventing re-infestation for weeks at a time (Parish 1945.) At this time in London, no other insecticide worked as efficiently as D.D.T. One report included a description of D.D.T and how to purchase it:

…the public will do well to discount some of the romance and avoid exploitation by buying D.D.T only from responsible firms, who standardise their products, and at the same time by learning something of its limitations. Crude D.D.T is a white powder which is insoluble in water… As a liquid, D.D.T… is more widely useful when dissolved in kerosene or paraffin.

In addition to informing the public about the use of D.D.T., some boroughs conducted experiments with the use of D.D.T. In 1945, the borough of Tottenham discovered that while D.D.T effectively killed lice, it had no effect on nits. Therefore, the Medical Officer of Health concluded that in order to effectively remove all lice, the D.D.T should be used in combination with combing. The use of D.D.T continued for years, but in 1970, another experiment determined that lice had become resistant to D.D.T. This same experiment found that lice were susceptible to malathion, an organophosphate insecticide. This experiment found that after three months, children who were treated with malathion in an area with a rapid re-infestation rate, had indeed remained louse free. Malathion is still used today as an treatment for pediculosis that has been approved by the FDA.

Medical Officer of Health Reports

1. Battersea 1943

2. Battersea 1956

3. Finsbury 1956

4. Finsbury 1959

5. Hampstead 1913

6. Kensington 1923

7. Kingston upon Thames 1949

8. Kingston upon Thames 1954

9. Richmond upon Thames 1945

10. Stepney 1946

11. St. Pancras 1904

12.  Sutton and Cheam 1951

13.  Tottenham 1945

14. Tower Hamlets 1970

Secondary Sources

Grieve, Maud. A modern herbal: the medicinal, culinary, cosmetic and economic properties, cultivation and folk-lore of herbs, grasses, fungi, shrubs, & trees with all their modern scientific uses. Vol. 2. Courier Corporation, 1971.

Parish, President-HJ. “Sectioii of Comparative Medicine.” 1945.

Velten, Hannah. Beastly London: A History of Animals in the City. London: Reaktion Books, 2016.

Featured image: Body louse. Wellcome Images.