Friday, 1 April 2016

Pith helmets, spine pads and actinic rays


When mad dogs and Englishmen went out in the midday sun, the Englishman needed his pith helmet

From Caro and Johnson (see references below)

When I was a medical student, and idly flicking through ancient medical journals in the library as a diversion from studying, I came across an article in an Indian medical journal from the 1920s comparing different kinds of pith helmets in terms of their ability to protect the wearer from the rays of the sun. I had known that the pith helmet was meant to protect the wearer from the sun, but I hadn’t quite realised how seriously this sort of thing was taken at the time.

The pith helmet may have been one of those items of dress that distinguished the white man from the native subject, but it was more than just a tribal headdress for the colonisers. It was at one time regarded as foolish and dangerous for a European to venture out in the day without one, because it was believed that the sun’s rays in the tropics had a harmful effect on his nervous system.


In the age of empire-building, the tropics were dangerous places for Europeans, who often succumbed to illness and death while abroad. Disease was poorly understood, and climate was thought to be one of the important factors.  There was the heat of course, but exposure to heat was not always associated with the same hazards as living in a tropical climate. Factory workers who laboured for many hours by the heat of industrial furnaces, or stokers in feeding the boilers of steamships did not succumb to the same diseases as Europeans in India and Africa.

Injuries to the nervous system or spine sometimes result in alterations in body temperature, so it was thought that the central nervous system had a vital role in regulating body temperature. It was believed that the sun's rays, and in particular "actinic" (utraviolet) rays, could penetrate the skull and body to produce deleterious effects, including sunstroke.

Not everyone’s brain was affected to the same degree. The dark-skinned natives did not suffer in the same way as Europeans, so it was believed that their darker pigmentation had a protective effect. For fair-skinned people, however, protection from the harmful effects of the tropical sun was thought to be essential.


The British in India considered it essential to wear some sort of headgear to protect their brains from actinic radiation, and the pith helmet became the preferred means of protection. This was a lightweight cloth-covered helmet, usually made from the pith of the sola, an Indian swamp plant, with a brim that protected the wearer's face and neck from the sun.


To go out in the sun bareheaded was regarded as genuinely dangerous. The natives wore turbans, and it was believed that this might have a similar protective effect. Interestingly, Indian women did not wear turbans, but did not seem to suffer unduly as a result.


It was also believed that the spinal cord played a role in the regulation of body temperature, and so it followed that the spine should also be protected from solar radiation. This led to the spine pad, a piece of fabric, often padded or quilted, worn over the spine. These were worn by travellers to the tropics, and issued by the British army from 1909.



Around the beginning of the twentieth century it was also reasoned that another way to protect Europeans from the sun would be to use clothing that simulated the supposed protective effect of dark skin. There was a brief vogue for dark coloured clothing and underwear. Some experiments suggested that certain colours might be more effective in blocking out the actinic rays, and there were experiments with red, orange or yellow coloured underclothes and lining for headgear.


TO GUARD AGAINST sunstroke. Press, Volume LXVIII, Issue 14290, 28 February 1912, Page 4

Spine pads had fallen from general use by the 1920s, but remained in production in England until 1940.


The pith helmet lasted longer, but went out of fashion around the second World War. Apart from advances in the understanding of heatstroke, the war also brought to India large numbers of men from Britain who did not bother with it, as well as Americans who had no tradition of wearing pith helmets, all of whom seemed to get on just fine.

References / Further Reading

The Wrong Topi: Personal Narratives, Ritual, and the Sun Helmet as a Symbol
Francis A. de Caro and Rosan A. Jordan
Western Folklore
Vol. 43, No. 4 (Oct., 1984), pp. 233-248
http://www.jstor.org/stable/1500107

British Army Spine Pads
Stuart Bates
MilitarySunHelmets.com
http://www.militarysunhelmets.com/2012/british-army-spine-pads

The Spine Pad: A Discarded Item of Tropical Clothing
R.T. Renbourn
Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps, Vol. 102, No. 3, 31st July 1956
http://jramc.bmj.com/content/102/4/217.full.pdf

European Cloth and “Tropical” Skin: Clothing Material and British Ideas of Health and Hygiene in Tropical Climates
Ryan Johnson
Bull Hist Med. 2009 Fall : 530-560.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3400508/

Military Headgear and its Relation to the Health of the Soldier
Harold D. Corbusier
Journal of the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States, Volume 18, No 5, p 342-362 (May 1906)
Available via Google Books

The Effects of Tropical Light on White Men
Major Chas. E.  Woodruff
1905
Rebman (New York and London)
https://archive.org/details/cu31924029901208


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