Friday, June 27, 2008


A shampoo-related death made news this week almost a hundred years after it happened. Sotheby's is auctioning the index card-file of notable London forensic pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury. One of his cases was the death of society girl Helen Elphinston-Dalrymple. The article I read in the Telegraph just said it was a "dry shampoo" at Harrods. Of course I had to dig a little deeper, and was thrilled to find I could read the entire index car record of her 1909 death right on the auction site.

Dry shampoo commonly means a talc or cornstarch-based concoction that is sprinkled or sprayed on and then brushed out to remove oil and add body. Many beauty books offer the DIY tip of using baby powder for this purpose. Popularity of this method peaked in the 1970s with the classic Psssssst, but they are gaining popularity once again in the past few years due to the popularity of the time-consuming blowout. I've tried them but found them itchy. I also couldn't get it out of my head that they are used in hospitals and mortuaries.

But the shampoo that killed Ms. Dalrymple was "dry" like dry-cleaning is dry. Her hair was washed with a chemical solvent made of Carbon Tetrachloride, a substance that the New York Times noted as "more toxic than chloroform" in an article at the time of the death.

Using solvents to clean hair was quite a trend. Lina Cavalieri, once known as the most beautiful woman in the world explains more in her 1914 book, My Secrets of Beauty:

"Parisians have recently been washing their hair in gasoline. Not because they believe it will cause hair to grow, but for the same purpose that it is used upon a spotted garment-- to cleanse the garment and remove the spots. Also gasoline makes the hair soft and silken of texture...
I myself have used gasoline a few times on my hair, but always try to keep it away from the scalp as much as possible. I cannot believe gasoline is good for the scalp. I take the gasoline shampoo somewhat as I do the water bath for the hair. I wash it in a bowl of gasoline, pour the first bowlful and wash it through another, then another, until the last bowlful is entirely clean. Let as little gasoline as possible get on the scalp. But the shampoo is always taken on the morning of a clear day. Never do I have it done while there is a light or fire in the room. If I did, there would be no more Lina Cavalieri."

I couldn't resist using the above movie poster for this story, but the film, Shampoo really deserves a post of its own.