A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Were hairballs once considered things of beauty?

May 5, 1995

Dear Cecil:

As I was slogging through yet another interesting assignment for medical school, I happened upon this interesting tidbit:

BEZOARS. Bezoars are foreign bodies in the stomach of animals and humans that are composed of food or hair that has been altered by the digestive process. Historically, bezoars were esteemed for their alleged therapeutic properties and aesthetic value, and one was included in the crown jewels of Queen Elizabeth I. (From Pathology, second edition, 1994, by E. Rubin and J. L. Farber, page 649.)

What "therapeutic and aesthetic" uses were people able to come up with for hair balls? Is Queen Elizabeth's Royal Hair Ball on display somewhere?

Cecil replies:

If they can promote the work of Michael Bolton as aesthetically desirable, I don't see what's so tough about hairballs. Actually, if you can suppress the thought of where they came from, bezoars are said to be kind of pretty. While I can't say I've laid eyes on one, I'm told they're hard and glassy, somewhat like pearls, which are produced in a similar way.

The original bezoars (also called bezoar stones) came from the wild goats of Persia as well as certain antelopes and other cud-chewing animals. They were believed to offer protection against poison and for that reason were highly prized during the Renaissance by the Medicis, presumably for when they had the Borgias over. Bezoars were later obtained in the New World from Peruvian llamas, but these were held to be of inferior quality — although it's gotta take a sharp eye to tell a good hairball from a bad one. Reportedly a gold-framed bezoar was listed in the 1622 inventory of Elizabeth I's crown jewels; make sure you look for it on the palace tour.

Little was heard about bezoars in modern times until 1987, when a seven-centimeter specimen was removed from the stomach of a 35-year-old man in Kansas City. Tan and egg-shaped, this bezoar is thought to have been the result of the man's habit of eating pieces of plastic foam cups. It wasn't embraced by the world of fashion, however. Too bad. Given an aggressive PR strategy, it could have been the hottest thing since the chia pet.

Things I didn't need to hear

Dear Cecil:

Re your recent discussion of bezoars, one month ago I operated on an 18-year-old woman who was having intestinal problems. She would become full after eating only small amounts. I surgically removed the large bezoar in the enclosed photo. It measured 8-9 inches. The young woman chewed her hair. I thought you would find this interesting.

Cecil replies:

Saints preserve us. The thing is roughly the size and shape of a turkey leg. And how nicely the Polaroid brings out those vivid post-operative colors! Now excuse me while I go to the bathroom and barf.

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