A Brief History of Head Lice

(Revised: 12-07-05)

Note: Most of the following head lice treatments are described for historical interest only, and are not recommended for use.  Many are poisonous (*) and/or extremely flammable (**).

c. 5,600,000 BC Based on (mtDNA) data, human head lice (Pediculus humanus) separated from Chimpanzee head lice (Pediculus schaeffi) about 5.6 million years Ago. At this time, ancient man separated from ancient Chimpanzee. [Anon., 2004] [Reed et al., 2004]

c. 1,180,000 BC Mankind split into two lineages, one leading to modern Homo sapiens and the other to now extinct Homo erectus, about 1.18 million years ago.  Since Pediculus humanus pre-dates this split, it also formed two races, one (consisting eventually of both head lice and body lice [H+B]) was carried by ancestors of modern H. sapiens and eventually became distributed world wide; the other (currently consisting of head lice only [H only]) may have been carried by archaic H. erectus to Asia, transferred to H. sapiens and carried to the New World by early migrants from Siberia, according to a recent hypothesis. [Anon., 2004] [ Reed et al., 2004] This view has been challenged by a study which shows that [H only] is much more widely distributed than just in the New World. [Leo & Barker, 2005].

c.105,000 BC    The separation of P. humanus (World Wide) into distinct “head”  and “body” forms may have occurred 107,000 years ago according to a molecular clock analysis (based on the rate of mutations of  mtDNA) from a global sample of 40 head and body lice. [Kittler et al, 2003] [Kittler et al, 2004]  These two forms are morphologically similar, but differ in ecology and slightly in size.  “Body lice live primarily in clothing and move on to the skin to feed twice a day. Head lice are confined to the scalp and feed more frequently. Body lice vector the bacteria responsible for epidemic typhus, trench fever, and relapsing fever, head lice are not known to vector any agent of human disease under natural conditions.”

c. 8,000 BC       The world’s oldest known direct head louse association – a nit on a human hair- was found at a 10,000 year old archaeological site in northeast Brazil. [Araujo et al., 2000]

c. 7,000 BC       Head lice eggs were found on matted human hair glued with asphalt to a skull found in a Neolithic cave in Israel’s Northern Negev.  The cave was C-14 dated to ~9,000 BP. [Mumcuoglu & Zias, 1991]

c. 3,000 BC       Nits were found on a 5,000 year old Egyptian mummy. [Anon., 2004; Fletcher, 2001] “Combing is the oldest method of lice control; nit combs have been found in Egyptian tombs.” [Ogg & Cochran, 2004] “Combs were found from tomb goods, even from pre-dynastic times.” [Takahashi, 2001]

1536 BC            The “Ebers’ Papyrus” recommends taking a mouth full of warm date meal and water and then spitting it on the skin “in order to drive away the Fleas and Lice which disport themselves…” [Ebbell, 1937]

c. 1500 BC        “The Laws of Manu” of ancient India divided the animal kingdom into three categories: born live from the womb, born from the egg, and produced from the sweat [i.e., spontaneous generation].  “From hot moisture spring stinging and biting insects, lice, flies, bugs, and all other (creatures) of that kind which are produced by heat.” [Buhler, 1886]

c. 1,200 BC       “The Chinese were using mercury(*) and arsenical(*) compounds to control body lice.” [Dent, 2001]

c. 430 BC          Herodotus (500-424 BC) described how the Egyptian priests prevented lice infestations: “The priests shave themselves all over their body every other day, so that no lice or any other foul thing may come to be upon them when they minister to the gods.”[Herodotus, c. 430 BC] “This is the reason why priests are illustrated bald-headed with no eyebrows or lashes.”[Ogg  & Cochran, 2004]

350 BC             Aristotle [384-322 BC] wrote: “Of insects that are not carnivorous but live on the juices of living flesh, such as lice and fleas and bugs, all, without exception, generate what are called ‘nits’, and these generate nothing….Lice are generated out of the flesh of animals. (i.e., spontaneous generation)

When lice are coming there is a kind of small eruption visible, unaccompanied by any discharge of purulent matter; and if you prick an animal in this condition at the spot of eruption, the lice jump out. In some men the appearance of lice is a disease, in cases where the body is surcharged with moisture; and indeed, men have been known to succumb to this louse disease, as Alcman the poet and the Syrian Pherecydes are said to have done. Moreover, in certain diseases lice appear in great abundance.

There is also a species of louse called the “wild louse”, and this is harder than the ordinary louse, and there is exceptional difficulty in getting the skin rid of it. Boys’ heads are apt to be lousy, but men’s in less degree; and women are more subject to lice than men.”[Aristotle, 350 BC]

1st Cent BC        Head lice were found on hair combs excavated in Israel and dated from the 1st century BC to the 8th century AD.[Mumcuoglu & Zias, 1988]

c. 30 BC           “Diodorus revived the old louse story – its origin from human skin and perspiration.” [Zinsser, 1935]

c. 64 AD           Dioscorides of Anazarbus, who was a Greek physician in Nero’s army, wrote “De materia medica”, which was the western world standard pharmaceutical text for the next 1600 years.[Dioscorides, 64 AD] He  suggested that an application of a pitch called Cedria (oil of cedar), derived either from Kedros (Cedrus libani) or from Cedrelate (Juniperus excelsa), “rubbed on kills lice and nits.”   Similarly, he recommended that a heated rub of the fruit of the Myrica (Tamarix germanica, Linnaeus) “is good for those with lice and nits.” He noted that Garlic boiled with Oregano kills lice and bed bugs. He discussed internal medical uses of the powdered seeds of Stavesacre(*) (Delphinium Staphisagria), but did not consider the use of the powdered seeds as a pediculicide.

c. 72-73            A comb with an intact louse was found in an excavation at the Roman fort of Luguvalium, located outside Carlisle Castle (near Hadrian’s Wall) in Cumbria, England.[BBC, 2004]

c. 77                 Pliny the Elder suggested: “Nits are destroyed by using dog’s fat, eating serpents cooked like eels, or else taking their sloughs (shed skin) in drink.”[Pliny, c.77] He also recommended the powdered seeds of the Stavesacre(*) (Delphinium Staphisagria) to kill body and head lice.  (Stavesacre(*) contains the alkaloid poisons delphinine, delphisine, delphinoidine, and staphisagroine.)

79                     A louse egg was found on a hair attached to the skull of a young woman buried at Herculaneum by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 27, 79 AD.  Contemporary writers noted that lice infestation was quite common in Ancient Rome. [Capasso & Di Tota, 1998]

c. 100               The Chinese materia medica, “Shen Nong Ben Cao” (aka Shennong Bencao Jing), described the use of Caoho (aka Ching-Hao), the dark green tops of Artesmisa annua or Sweet Wormwood, applied topically to kill lice. [Tao, c. 500]  Ching-Hao is still used in traditional Chinese medicine as a topical parasiticide.

c. 100               The Chinese discovered that Pyrethrum powder obtained from the dried flowers of at least one species of chrysanthemum was insecticidal. [Hellemans & Bunch, 2004]

4th Cent             Nits were found on the hair of a 4th century Egyptian mummy. [Ewing, 1924]

5th–16th Cent      “Uncommonly, in patients who are heavily infested (with lice) and untreated, the hair becomes tangled with exudates, predisposing the area to fungal infection and results in a malodorous mass known as Plica Polonica.” [Guenter et al., 2005] During the middle ages, Plica Polonica was known under a variety of local names: as either ‘mahrenlocke’, ‘elfklatte’, ‘wichtelzopf’, ‘sellentost’ or ‘selkensteert’ (selkin’s tail),  in Lower Saxony; ‘marelok’ in Denmark; ‘elflocks’ or ‘elvish knots’ in England; ‘saellocke’ in Thuringa; and ‘weichselzopf’ in Poland [Grimm, 1850]

5th-6th Cent.        The remains of seven head lice were found on the fine tooth side of a wooden comb excavated in Antinoe. Egypt and dated between the 5th and 6th cenuries AD.  “The effectiveness of fine-toothed combs as delousing instruments can hardly be overstated.”[Palma, 1991]

9th Cent.            Thabit ibn Qurra recommended in his “Kitab al-dhakhira” (Book of treasure) using a paste of horned poppy and borax to kill head lice. [Qurra, 9th Cent.]

1000-1250         A male Chiribaya mummy [#803-1371] from southern Peru “exhibited hair that was matted in scab-like material and was perhaps badly affected by lice. [Plica Polonica] In the Chiribaya culture “Men had a higher (lice) infestation prevalence than women. This is because men more commonly had elaborate hair styles that covered the scalp in braids.” [Reinhard and Buikstra, 2003]

c. 1020             Ibn Sina of Avicenna (980-1036) described the use of mercury against lice and scabies [Carraher & Pittman, 2004]. He also reported observations of chronic mercury toxicity. (Mercury is a neurotoxin.)

c. 1180             Moses Miomonides (1135-1204), a Spanish Jewish rabbi and sage who served as a physician at the Egyptian court wrote that: “It is permissible to kill lice on Shabbat (Sabbath) because they are (spontaneously generated) from sweat.” [Maimonides, 1180]

12th-17th Cent.    The Agustinian brethren ran the Soutra Hospital near Edinburgh, UK for 500 years, and used arsenic preparations to treat lice infestations (Laurance, 1997).  These preparations were still in use at the Royal Edinburgh hospital in the 1960’s.

1200-1280         Albertus Magnus wrote that: “Ointment made of the seeds of stavesacre(*) was used to dispel head lice.”(Bayard, 1985)

c. 1240             Ibn Al-Baytar wrote that honey “will kill lice if infested children’s skin is painted with it.” (Hajar, 2003)

1250                 The magnifying glass was invented by Roger Bacon

c. 1285             Plica Polonica appeared in Poland at about the year 1285, under the reign of Lezekle-Noir. [Gold & Pyle, 1910]

c. 1300             Marco Polo is claimed to have brought Pyrethrum powder to Europe as a wonderous compound of secret origin [Mrak, 1969].

1352                 Ibn Battuta, [the Arabian Marco Polo] while crossing the Sahara found that: “There are also so many lice in it that people put strings around their necks in which there is mercury(*) which kills the lice.”[Halsall, 2000]]

1399                 “…lice rushed out of the King’s hair at the (coronation) ceremony for Henry IV.” [Hilliam, 2001]

1440                 Invention of the Guttenberg Printing Press

1421                 Samuel Norton wrote: “…to heale …lice…outwardlie anoint them with ointment made of quicksilver(*) and stavesacre(*), to which some of our Elixir, and which the drinck may stavesacre be mingled; and so doing hee shall be cured…” [Norton, 1421]

15th Cent.          The English Leechbook” notes: “For fleas and lice to slay them, take horsemint and strew it in your house, and it will slay them. …..”For nits in the head: [1] Make lye of wild nept (*)(bryony) and therewith wash your head, & it will destroy them; [2]   Take quicklime or piment (capisicum, pepper), and make powder of them, and mix the powder with vinegar and anoint the head with it.  And this destroys them without failing of hair or any other harm; [3]  Take seawater or else also brine, and wash your head, and that shall destroy them; [4]  Take juice of a herb that is called blight,  and anoint your head with it, both lice and nits shall fall away;  [5]  Take a broad list (a strip of cloth) the length of a girdle, and anoint the one side with fresh grease mingled with quick-silver(*) (mercury), and spread on it a powder of lichen and press it with your fingers so it sticks firmly to it, and then fold it together, and sew together the sides; and then wind it in a linen cloth; and sew it together, and wear it henceforth; and the lice and nits shall die.  This has been well proved.” [Dawson, 1934]

1491                 “The earliest known drawings of lice are from wood-cuts in the first edition of ‘Hortus sanitatis’ in 1491.” [Mumcuoglu, 2002]  (note: ‘Hortus Sanitatis’ was published in 1491 by Jacob Meydenbach, Mainz.)

16th Cent.          Invention of the “Flea Glass”, a less than 10X Magnification precursor to the microscope.

1543                 In Muscovy (Russia) during the reign of Ivan IV (1533-84), false hellebore(*) (Veratrum viride) was commonly used against lice.[Smith, 1984]  (note: false hellebore contains the alkaloids jervine, cyclopamine, and cycloposine)

1544                 Thomas Phaer, in the first Pediatrics textbook written in English, recommended several medicines to kill lice: [1] “Take the groundes or dregges of oyle aloes, wormwood(*) [note: contains Thujone, a neurotoxin], and the galle of a bulle or of an oxe; make an oyntement, whyche air singular good for the same purpose.”  [2] “Take mustered, and dissolve it in vinegre with a lytle salt peter, and anoint the place where as the lyce are wonte to breede.”; “Item, an herbe at the pothecaries called stavesacre(*), brimstone, and vynegre, is excedyng good.”; [3] “It is good to gyve the pacient often in hys drynke pouder of an hartes horne brente.”; [4] “Stavisacre(*) with oyle air a marveylouse holsome thynge in this case.”; [5] “An experte medicine to dryve awaye lyse: Take the groundes or dregges of oyle or, in lacke of it, fresh swines grece, a sufficient quantitie, wherein ye shal chafe an ounce of quycksylver(*) tyl it be all sunken into the grece; then take pouder of stavisacre(*) serced, and myngle all togyther; make s gyrdyll of a wollen liste (strip of cloth) meete for the myddle of the pacient, and to annoynte it over with the sayde medicine. Then let hym were it continually nexte his skynne, for it is a synguler remedye to chase awaye the vermin. The onely odour of quyckesylver (mercury) kylleth lyce.” [Phaer, 1544]

1588                 Christopher Marlowe’s play “Doctor Faustus” was first published in 1588.  In scene IV, the dialog refers to stavesacre(*) and lice. [Marlowe, 1588]  Apparently, this association was well known in England at that time.

17th Cent.          “In the 17th century, physicians still considered that lice are issued from the body excretions by a “spontaneous generation” phenomenon [Aristotle’ 350 BC], this does not disturb the patients who continue to treat themselves by delousing. This is painted very often in Dutch paintings from this century, especially in “genre painting”, which is specific of Holland.” [Cabotin, 1994] [Mumcuoglu, 2002]

1652                 Nicholas Culpeper [Culpeper, 1652] noted on page 3 of “The English Physitian” that “The inner Bark [of the Black Alder Tree]  herof boyled in Vinegar, is an approved remedy to kill Lice, cure the itch…”  He wrote on page 66: “The [Hyssop] oyl thereof being anoynted killeth lice, and taketh away Itching of the Head …”.  [note: Hyssop(*) oil [Hyssopus officinalis ] contains the ketones thujone and pinocamphone, both neurotoxins. [Millet, 1981] ] He also suggested on page 210 that: “the root [of Meadow Rue(*)] boyled in water, and the places of the Body most troubled with Vermin or Lice, washed therewith while it is warm, destroyeth them utterly.” [note: Meadow Rue(*) contains thalictrine, a potent cardiac poison.]                                                                                       .

1653                 Robert Pemell wrote in “De Morbis Puerorum”: “The signs are apparent, for the lice are bred both on head and body.…If  lice be onely in the head, in many it preserves their health, because they consume  much excrementitious humors.”  …”First, for the prevention of lice, and to hinder the breeding of them, it will be necessary to keep the child often changed, and to comb often the head, and to avoid all meats of ill juyce. If the child be of any bigness the body may be purged….”  Pemell advised bathing the head twice a day with a warm water solution containing: Mercury(*), Nitre, Beets, Sopewort, Elecampane root, white Briony root(*), Centory the lesser, and Lupines. After each bath, the child’s head was to be anointed with a ointment composed of Stavesacre(*), Wormwood(*), Rue(*), Brimstone (Sulphur) and Nitre (Potassium Nitrate) and all mixed with oyl of Bayes and oyl of Wormwood(*).  Alternatively, an ointment composed of powdered Brimstone and Stavesacre(*) mixed with vinegar in oyl of Wormwood(*) could be used. “….. Many use stronger ointments made with Arsenick(*), Quicksilver(*), and white Hellebor(*), but for young children it is not safe to use them.  This powder following is good and safe……Take of Coculus Indy (note: contains picrotoxin)(*) a quarter of an ounce, white Pepper a drachme; beat them into a grosse powder, and strew it into the heads of children, for it will soon destroy the lice.  Or you may dip a comb in strong Mercury(*) water, or water made with Arsenik(*), and so comb the childs head therewith.” [Pemell, 1653]

1657                 W. Coles noted that the oil from the Hyssop(*) [Hyssopus officinalis] “killeth lice.” [Coles, 1657]

1664                 Robert Hooke published the first micrograph of a Louse clinging to a human hair. [Hooke, 1664]

1668                 Francisco Redi showed by experiment that maggots are not spontaneously generated from rotten meat, but rather require the presence of flies to lay eggs on the meat.  However, the belief in “spontaneous generation” of insects remained strong. [Redi, 1668]

1681                 Nicholas Culpeper in his “The Complete Herbal” [Culpeper, 1681] recommended  “English tobacco” juice to “kill lice on children’s heads.” However, nicotine(*) (an alkaloid) is readily absorbed through the skin. (Recent laboratory tests have shown that nicotine is not an efficient head lice killer [Burkhart & Burkhart, 2000], even though it does control lice on poultry.)  Culpeper also recommended a salve made of powdered olibanum (Frankincense) mixed 50/50 with Barrow’s Grease (lard) to kill head lice. He also noted that: “Stavesacre(*) kills lice in the head.  I hold it not fitting to be given inwardly.” He also suggested that for Henbane(*) [Hyoscyamus niger L.], “The decoction of the herb or seed or both, kills lice in man or beast…Take notice this herb must never be taken inwardly…” [note: Henbane contains the alkaloid Hyoscyamine, as well as Atropine and Hyoscine.] As for Hyssop(*), he states that “…The oil thereof (the head being anointed) kills lice and takes away the itching of the head.”

1695                 “Risale-I buberiye,” an Ottoman Turkish manuscript on the medical uses of rosemary noted its use as a hair shampoo against lice. [Deger, 1993]

<1700               The Tipai (aka Kumeyaay) Indians of Baja California used the boiled sap of the mesquite [Prosopis juliflora] as a glue mixed with mud and plastered on the head for a day or two to kill head lice and to blacken the hair. They also used the ground seeds of mistletoe [Phoradendron sp.] , mixed with clay in the same manner. [Hohenthal, 2001]

1758                 Carl Linnaeus declared in 1758 that there was one species of the human louse: “Pediculus humanus” [Dalgleish, 2003].  De Geer in 1767 split the category into two sub species [Buxton, 1947], starting a controversy which has lasted more than 200 years.  In two recent DNA experiments, the human head louse and body louse were claimed to be different forms of a single species: Pediculus humanus. [Reed, 2004] [Leo et al, 2002]  However, the controversy still continues because yet two other experiments based on the observation of simultaneous [double] infestations of both head and body lice showed that head and body lice were two genetically distinct families which do not naturally interbreed. One experiment on Ethiopian lice [Busvine, 1978] showed a 30%  size difference between the tibia of the middle leg of head and body lice. The other experiment was based both on direct observation that head lice and body lice do not interbreed under natural conditions, and that DNA “fingerprinting” of 443 “wild” lice from Nepal and inner Mongolia [Leo & Barker, 2004] showed distinct differences.

c. 1800             “Persian louse powder was known to the Caucasus”.[Grodner, 1997] [Vandaveer, 2002] [Glynne-Jones, 2001] The pyrethrum powder was formed from the dried petals from  the Persian chrysanthemum flower [C. roseum]. The active ingredients of the powder are pyrethrin-I, pyrethrin-II, Cinerin-I, Cinerin-II, Jasmolin-I and Jasmolin-II.  These natural pyrethrins are contact poisons which affect the nervous system of the louse.

1816                 William Salisbury noted that Stavesacre(*)   “…is chiefly employed in external applications …for destroying lice and other insects, inasmuch that it has from this virtue received its name in different languages, Herbal pedicularis, Herb aux poux, Lauskraut, Lousewort.” [Salisbury, 1816]

c. 1820             A book of folk remedies and “white magic,” published in the USA about 1820 recommends that “To drive away lice Fishberry and lard mixed together, and the head anointed therewith.” [Magnus, 1820]

1830                 Ogonezyk Zakrzewski in his “History of Plica Polonica,” observed that its cure is accomplished with superstitious ceremonies. [Zakrzewiski, 1830]

1840                 Head lice were common among people and in the schools of Brookville, Pennsylvania in 1840.  “The only cure for lice was to ‘rid’ out the hair every few days with a big coarse comb, crack the nits between the thumbnails, and the saturate the hair with ‘red precipity’ (mercuric oxide powder), using a fine tooth comb. The itch was cured by the use of ointment made of brimstone (sulphur) and lard. During school-terms many children wore little sacks of powdered brimstone about their necks. This was supposed to be a preventive.” [McKnight, 1905]

1858                 “Pyrethrum from the Dalmation Chrysanthemum [C. cineraiaefolium] was first used in the U.S.” in 1858 [Grodner, 1997]

1864                 Louis Pasteur [Pasteur, 1864] demonstrated conclusively that Aristotle’s theory [Aristotle, 350 BC] of the “Spontaneous Generation” of human lice (and other insect life forms), was wrong. His paper won a contest on this subject sponsored by The French Academy of Sciences and brought to a close a 2,214 year old controversy.

c. 1870             In 1859 the first successful commercial oil well was drilled and produced less than 20 barrels of oil a day. In 1861, the Empire well on the Funk Farm in Pennsylvania initially flowed at 3,000 barrels per day, and caused the price of oil to drop to 10 cents per barrel. [Nestor, 2004] After the U.S. Civil War  (1861-1865),  kerosene(**) became readily available and was used principally as a fuel for oil lamps.  A series of reports from 1907, 1927, and 1939 [Thomas, 1907] [Annon., 1927] [Foxlady & Tyshee, 2004] suggest that it was widely used as a head lice suffocating agent and is still in use.  Recent advisories have warned against its use because of the danger of fire [Lamb, 2004] [Seale, 2002].

1881                 The 1881 “Household Cyclopedia” [Hartshorne, 1881] notes that “Persian Insect Powder(*) is the pyrethrum roseum Caucasicum.  The central or tubular florets are alone used.  They are ground into powder.  Although destructive to insect life, it is harmless to man and domestic animals.”  The 1881 Household Cyclopedia also suggested that: “To Destroy Body Lice:

1. Mercurial(*) ointment (a mixture of mercury, hog lard, and          mutton suet containing twelve grains of mercury in one drachma of ointment.) well rubbed on the infected part and washed off with warm water and soap.  In the army a common practice was to wear a string saturated with the ointment around the waist as a means of protection.

2. Corrosive sublimate(*) (Mercuric Chloride), 1 dr.; Sal ammoniac(*) (Ammonium Chloride), 2 drs.; water, 8 oz. This is to be used as the first;  it is more cleanly.

3.  Coculus indicus(*), 1 oz.;  boiling water, 1 pt.; use when cool.”

1898                 Harvey Felter and John Lloyd reported that: “The powdered seeds (of Stavesacre)(*)       mixed with lard have been found useful in some forms of cutaneous disease, and to destroy lice in the hair; a tincture or infusion of the bruised seeds, in vinegar, may be employed for the same object. ” They also noted that Stavesacre(*) is a poison if taken internally.   They also stated that powdered seeds of Cocculus Indicus(*)[Anamirta paniculata](contains picrotoxin) or the powdered rhizome of the White Hellebore(*) [Veratrum album], both of which are very poisonous, can be applied in an ointment to kill lice.[Felter & Lloyd, 1898]

1907                 Rolla Thomas suggested: “Where the hair is matted or the nits abundant, it is better to have the hair cut short.  The hair and the scalp is to be thoroughly saturated with petroleum, (coal oil) and allowed to remain for ten to twelve hours, when the parasites and ova are entirely destroyed.  This will be followed by thoroughly washing the head with warm water and soap; any good toilet soap may be used….The hair should be carefully combed with a fine-tooth comb, in order to remove the ova, shells, and parasites.” [Thomas, 1907]

1909                 Charles Nicolle discovered that epidemic typhus was transmitted by the excreta of body lice. [Gross, 1996]  He found that bathing the typhus patients and sterilizing their clothes and underwear stopped the spread of the infection. This sanitary procedure was followed by some of the military during and after World War I [Anon., 2002]. Nonetheless, “ after World War I, 20-30 million people died in Eastern Europe from this disease, and an additional several million died during and after World War II [Gross, 1996].”

1910                 “Plica has always been more frequent on the banks of the Vistula and Borysthenes in damp and marshy situations, than in other parts of Poland. [Gould & Pyle, 1910]

1911                 The British Pharmaceutical Codex [BPC, 1911] listed “Nursery Hair Lotion” or “Stavesacre(*) Lotion” which consisted of ground stavesacre(*) seeds, glycerin, acetic acid, alcohol, oil of lavender, oil of geranium, oil of lemon, and distilled water. The Codex also noted that : “Powdered pyrethrum flowers are used to stupefy and keep away insects,” and that the powdered berries of Cocculus Indicus(*) “…are sometimes used in the form of an ointment (1 in 60) for destroying pediculi…”

1917                 “In 1917, the U.S. Navy made the first pyrethrum extracts by percolating ground (Chrysanthemum) flowers with kerosene, which were then incorporated into space sprays for use against houseflies and mosquitoes.” [Glyn-Jones, 2001]   Prior to this time, “the primary uses for the ground (pyrethrum) flowers were for the control of body lice on humans and animals, and crawling insects in the home.”

1918                 Joseph P. Remington and Horatio C. Wood listed Cocclus Indicus(*) as a pediculicide, but cautioned that “…it is an exceedingly dangerous drug.” [Remington & Wood, 1918]

1918                 By the end of World War I, the US Army had had developed NCI powder (96% naphthalene, 2% creosote, 2% iodoform) to be spread on clothing and personnel, and “vermijelli” (crude mineral oil, soft soap, and water, mixed 9:5:1) to be spread on the seams of clothing [AFPMB, 2002] to kill lice.

1922                 To kill head lice, B.A. Peters [Peters, 1922] recommended a mixture of sodium taurcholate 10 grams, oil of eucalyptus 50 cc, and water 1 liter.  The salt (an emulsifier) is dissolved first, the oil added and the whole shaken before application.

1922                 Harvey Wickes Felter noted that the topical use of Stavesacre(*) “has proved fatal to a child….It is exceedingly poisonous…Locally staphisagria seeds are a parasiticide…The powdered seeds may be mixed with fats and applied for the destruction of pediculi…Equally effectual and more manageable is an equivalent dilution of the specific medicine with vinegar, dilute acetic acid or ether. It must not be used unless the skin is intact, and then with caution as to quantity.” [Felter, 1922]

1927                 David M.R. Culbreth states in “A Manual of Materia Medica and Pharmacology,” that Stavesacre(*) seed is a “Parasiticide, sedative irritant, poisonous; popular with Greeks, Romans(16), etc., but too dangerous for internal use—use locally to kill vermin, lice…” [Culbreth, 1927]

1939                 Patrick A. Buxton in his treatise “The Louse,” recommended  the use of  paraffin (kerosene)(**) 50/50 mixed with either olive oil or cottonseed oil.   This mixture was to be applied to the hair overnight. [Buxton, 1939]

1942                 A U.S. Department of Agriculture group in Orlando, Florida developed “…MYL powder, a louse powder consisting of pyrethrins as a toxicant, mixed with a synergist (N-isobutylundecyleneamide), an ovicide, an antioxidant, and a pyrophyllite powder…” which was used in a 1943 test by the Rockefeller Foundation Health Commission typhus team to delouse Arab villagers in Egypt. The test proved that “Fully effective MYL makes a pretty complete kill and has some ovicidal action as well as some delayed action in killing young as they hatch.  MYL can be used on heads for lice without danger.” [Soper, 1943]  Later that year MYL was used to delouse typhus contacts during an epidemic in Algeria.  In the winter of 1943 – 1944 a major typhus epidemic, (this time in Naples, Italy) was suppressed by the prompt dusting of the population with MYL powder, followed later by DDT which had just become available. [Finocchiro, 1964]

1944                 DDT (Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) was used by the U.S. forces in World War II to suppress lice and mosquito borne diseases such as typhus and malaria. DDT powder was widely used during [Soper, 1944] and after World War II to delouse refugees. It was released in 1945 for general civilian use [USEPA, 1975] as an insecticide. After 1945, agricultural and commercial use of DDT became widespread.  During the next 30 years, 1,350,000,000 pounds of DDT was used in the US alone.  “…In 1970-72, over 80% was applied to cotton crops, with the remainder being used predominantly on peanut and soybean crops.”  After 1959, DDT usage in the U.S. declined greatly, partially due to increased insect resistance which was first reported in 1946 [Denholm et al., 2002].  For example: “The failure of DDT to control body lice on prisoners of war and refugees in Korea early in 1951 stemmed from louse resistance to this insecticide.  Due in part to the development of resistance by body lice to DDT on a global scale, the US DoD dropped DDT from the military supply system in 1965” [USAFPMB, 2002]. The USEPA  cancelled the registration of DDT in the U.S. in 1972 [USEPA, 1975] because of perceived environmental effects [Edwards & Milloy, 1999] [Tren & Bate, 2001] [Tren & Bate, 2004].

1945-1975         Because of widespread DDT use in the United States, for a period of about 30 years head lice outbreaks were uncommon.” [Greene, 2004]

c. 1945             Refined extracts of pyrethrum were developed for use with Freon-based aerosols and led to the “…continuous use of pyrethrum based formulations to control head lice in children in the Western world.….  In the USA, up to 1973, household products containing synergized pyrethrum could be labeled as “nontoxic to humans and pets”.  Today the majority of pyrethrum formulations are synergised with Pipernyl Butoxide.”

1947                 The synergist, Piperonyl Butoxide (PBO), was first synthesized in 1947 for use with insecticides such as pyrethrum.  From 1952                       onward significant tonnage of PBO was manufactured and sold in the US. It is usually used in the ratio 12:1 with refined pyrethrum                       to kill head lice.  “Synergists are chemicals which, whilst lacking pesticidal properties of their own, enhance the pesticidal properties                       of other ingredients.” [Bennett, 2002]

1951-2004         USP Lindane (*) was introduced as a head lice treatment in the U.S in 1951 [Ogg & Cochran, 2004].  In 1994 the US Armed Forces Pest Management Board “…recommended that lindane powder be removed from the military supply system due to safety concerns…” [USAFPMB, 1994].  It was labeled by the US FDA as a second line therapy in 1995, since there are safer treatments that should be used first [USFDA, 2003].  In January 2002 the state of California banned lindane, because it was polluting the state’s water supplies [Lowenthal, 2002].  However, it is still approved by the US FDA, although Medline warns of serious side effects from its use [Medline, 2003].  Several European countries (Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, and Sweden) have banned all uses of lindane [Schafer, 2004].  In addition, by 1983 some head lice in the United States were resistant to lindane [Horowitz et al,1998].  It is a US FDA pregnancy category C drug.  In 2003 the FDA issued a Public Health Advisory concerning Lindane recommends that it be not used on infants, children, nursing mothers, the elderly, patients with other skin conditions, and anyone who weighs less than 110 pounds.  The FDA has also limited the dose to one use of 2 ounces maximum [USFDA, 2003].

1977                 Permethrin (“NIX”) was introduced as a head lice treatment [WHO, 1990] in 1977.   In 1990, 600 tons per year were being produced world wide, mostly for agricultural use.  By 1978 insects were first documented as being resistant to pyrethroids.  In 2004 it was reported that head lice in South Florida had developed strong permethrin resistance [Yoon et al., 2003].  It is a FDA pregnancy category B Drug. Its safety in breast feeding is unknown.

1984                 OVIDE(**)(*), a pediculicide consisting of 0.5% USP Malathion (an organophosphate) in an alcoholic lotion, was approved in 1984 by the US FDA as a treatment for head lice [USFDA, 1999].  Marketing of OVIDE was discontinued in 1994. In 1999 it was re-approved by the US FDA as a prescription medication for head lice.  It is a FDA pregnancy category B drug. The FDA states that it is contraindicated for neonates and infants, and should be used with caution on nursing mothers.  “Prescription Malathion…is not considered a first line of treatment because it is flammable, has an objectionable odor, and must remain on the skin for 8 to 12 hours.” [Merck, 2004b]  Organophosphate insecticides were first marketed in 1950 and the first insect resistance to them was documented in 1965.

1995                 By 1995, head lice in Britain and Australia were showing resistance to Pyrethroids [deBerker & Sinclair, 2000].

1995                 “No original publications can be found in the Hungarian medical literature about [Plica Polonica]. However, we can find people with this syndrome in Hungary also at the present time.” [Mozer, 1995]

2004                 In the UK, a possible case of Plica Polonica was reported in a 9 year old girl who had both pediculosis and matted hair. [Barron, 2004]

1999                 By 1999, head lice in the United States(77), Britain, Argentina, Israel, and the Czech Republic were all showing  resistance to Permethrin [Pollack et al., 1999]

2001                 “Dorland’s Medical Dictionary” [Merck, 2004a] states that :…the lousewort or stavesacre(*), a poisonous species whose seeds called staphisagria, were formerly used medicinally.”  However, after ~1900 years, stavesacre is still commercially available as a herbal head lice remedy.

2004                 Dale Pearlman developed NUVO lotion, a non-toxic dry-on suffocation based pediculicide (DSP), which was tested in an open trial and showed to be 96% efficient on drug resistant head lice following three treatments spaced seven days apart.  Without neurotoxins, removing the nits, or extensive house cleaning, the trial showed results equivalent to the best of previous studies using other pediculicides on non-resistant head lice. [Pearlman, 2004]


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©2005 by Harry A. Morewitz, PhD.  All rights reserved.