If history has taught us anything is that human beings are very strange creatures. One minute we’re utterly disgusted by something, the next, that same thing becomes the most sought-after prize. This is particularly true when considering the history of women’s beauty products. Just take a glance at all the various cultures in the world and their diverse ideals of beauty, and you’ll see exactly what I mean. However, it seems that the responsibility for the existence of the entire cosmetic industry lies on the shoulders of the ancient Egyptians.
Sure, everything might have started out pretty innocently, when they first uncovered the healing properties of scented oils, but from that point onward, the focus of one’s outward appearance became a central point even of their religious doctrine. Talk about some real fashion-lovers those ancient Egyptians… Therefore, as would be expected, these methods of enhancing one’s natural beauty spread into other parts of the world as well, until people everywhere became increasingly preoccupied with the image they were putting on display for others to see. And that is definitely one thing that stuck around from ancient times to this very day.
Nonetheless, the history of beauty products is riddled with its highs and lows, with its miracle-working products and equally disastrous ones. It is quite ironic how in the search for perpetual beauty people have resorted to all types of poisonous products and health-threatening methods. Just take for instance this ancient beauty tip that consisted of wearing bromine mannite-made lipstick, which did provide a beautiful red coloring of the lips, but it also led over time to skin burning, kidney failure and brain damage. Or perhaps this great fashion statement popular in the Elizabethan era, in which women would often apply white lead-based foundation, while others preferred using sulfur or aluminum powders to obtain that darling pale (and poisonous) complexion.
“Once the two doctors finally persuaded their heavily wrinkled thirty-year-old receptionist Cathy Bickerton Swann to become the first patient to have her deep forehead V-shaped lines magically erased with the help of one shot, the rest would become Botox-Barbie history.”
Yet, this unconventional approach to beauty has also resulted in the extremely resourceful tendency to search for and turn the most unconventional of items into properly healthy, properly healing remedies (though it probably did take a few deaths here and there for people to convince themselves, that yes, poison-free cosmetics are indeed much better). So, without further ado, I give you the story of how the bacteria Clostridium botulinum became all the rage of the cosmetic industry.
It all starts with the German poet and physician Justinus Kerner who had a hunch that a certain toxin was responsible for the outbreak of food poisoning in the town of Württemberg in 1817. The culprit had been traced back to a batch of boiled sausages, which due to the locals’ habit of cooking them slowly over low temperature, to reduce the risk of them bursting open, had developed a bacteria that Kerner named after the Latin name for sausage, botulus.
It was this same bacteria that provoked a similar incident, much later, in 1895, when members of a Belgian brass band, after having performed at a funeral, went to the local pub Le Rustic for a few pints of beer and some air-dried smoked ham. At first, those that had consumed the ham started exhibiting symptoms not unlike alcohol intoxication, such as blurred vision, impaired movement and incoherent speech. But it would be soon clear that this was not your everyday drunken pub session, when three of the youngest musicians in the band had succumbed to death in just seven days. Luckily though, the microbiologist Emile van Ermangem, who had attended the same funeral quickly performed clinical, bacteriologic and toxicological tests on the organs of the victims. What he isolated from both the organs’ tissue and the ham’s were anaerobic bacteria that some claim he named Bacillus botulinum, taking after Kerner’s previous example, while others say that the name refers to the bacteria’s sausage-like shape.
In any case, it was Dr. Edward Schantz who in 1946 succeeded in obtaining a crystallized form of the toxin that allowed a much ampler study to be carried out. Then, in the subsequent ‘50s, a certain Dr. Vernon Brooks would be the one to accidentally come across, by experimenting on monkeys, the fact that when injected into tissue the toxin would no longer be harmful, and instead it would block the release of acetylcholine from motor nerves causing spasms in muscle tissue. The FDA would later (1978) allow this form of botulinic treatment to be administered in the case of patients with strabismus, facial and neck spasms, and other various nervous tics.
The final leap to using the botulinic toxin in cosmetic interventions would be provided by one female patient of Dr. Jean Carruthers from Vancouver, who was specialized in treating patients suffering from facial spasms and abnormal blinking (blepharospasm) via botulism injections. This patient demanded another shot to be immediately administered, due to the unpleasant return of her forehead wrinkles, following her initial treatment for upper brow spasms. After Jean told this funny story to her husband, Dr. Alastair Carruthers, in the end, he would be the genius mastermind revered by women everywhere, to have realized the cosmetic potential of these injections. Once the two doctors finally persuaded their heavily wrinkled thirty-year-old receptionist Cathy Bickerton Swann to become the first patient to have her deep forehead V-shaped lines magically erased with the help of one shot, the rest would become Botox-Barbie history.
Graeme Donald, The Accidental Scientist. The Role of Chance and Luck in Scientific Discovery, London, Michael O’Mara Books Ltd, 2013
“History’s 9 Most Terrifying Beauty Tips”, May 28 2008 on Cracked.com
“The Action of Botulinum Toxin on motor-nerve filaments” in The Journal of Physiology (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov).