What’s gnawing on Jane Austen’s hair?

An extreme close-up of one of Jane Austen's hairs, showing bits of skin (labeled 'S') and two different species of yeast ('M' and 'F').

An extreme close-up of one of Jane Austen’s hairs, showing bits of skin (labeled ‘S’) and two different species of yeast (‘M’ and ‘F’).

The years hadn’t been kind to the lonely lock of Jane Austen’s hair on display in a Hampshire museum. Light had bleached it to a straw color; only the shadowed underside remained its original brown. A few tiny flakes of skin still adhered, long after the legendary author had crumpled to dust. And the hair’s surface—visible only after vacuum coating it in a patina of carbon and metallic silver 2,000 times thinner than each hair itself, and then loading the coated hair into a Cambridge ‘Stereoscan Mk II’ scanning electron microscope*—was looking a little rough. To be more precise: a little gnawed.

So what was gnawing on Jane Austen’s hair nearly two centuries since it was detached from the dead author’s head?

In 1972, this wasn’t the most pressing question on the minds of the Jane Austen Society when they contacted Dr. J.A. Swift, a researcher in Middlesex, England. Concerned simply about the effects of display on the lock’s preservation, they asked him to examine a few hairs for signs of decay. But Dr. Swift saw more than some bleaching and dandruff: by using a powerful scanning electron microscope, he found what had been chewing on Austen’s hair.

The culprit? Yeast. But not the sort that ferments your beer and raises your bread: these were human scalp yeasts, which thrive on a diet of sweat and the waxy sebum that waterproofs our skin. Deprived of their food after Austen died and this lock of her hair was taken by her niece, Fanny Knight, the hungry yeast tried consuming the dead, flat scales of protein that make up human hair. But without a supply of their favorite sweaty food, they soon died themselves. Even now, their stringy, filamentous bodies remain tangled with the hair of their long-dead host.

A host who had unusually smooth, flat-surfaced hair—an indication that Austen’s hair must have been covered against the elements, and rarely combed in the last few years of her life. A state of hair which, Dr. Swift suggests, “might be consistent with an individual who placed little emphasis on the outward appearance of her hair.”

* The MkI was presumably in the shop.

Swift JA (1972). Scanning electron microscope study of Jane Austen’s hair. Nature, 238 (5360), 161-2 PMID: 4558459