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JFK and the Mad Hatters

<p>Did President John Fitzgerald Kennedy influence the rate of skin cancer?</p>

Did President John Fitzgerald Kennedy influence the rate of skin cancer?

John Fitzgerald Kennedy had a major influence on the populace losing their lids. Hats, that is. Prior to his inauguration, most men wore hats outdoors. Few farmers in the field ventured out uncovered. The top hat was a fixture of formality in the 19th century. The fedora became an icon of 1920’s gangsters.

The Panama, the pork pie, boater and bucket, the cowboy, campaign and capotain all had wide brims.

When JFK appeared on television with his thick brown hair uncovered during his outdoor inaugural, the world took notice. Much closer, at least five of the men behind the president in the tightly framed video don’t seem to know whether to wear or remove their hats during the speech.

He and Jackie became the fashion icons of the early 60’s, and Americans took sartorial clues from their clan. Pictures of “Camelot” starring an invariably uncovered presidential coif cemented the impression.

Perhaps JFK’s hair was too thick, too mop-topped to properly place a hat upon. Maybe he just didn’t like hats, or wanted to show off his lustrous locks. In any event, at the drop of a hat, hats were shed from heads of men. From a casual survey of photos of his inaugural, a strong majority of the men present are wearing hats. All of them are brimmed, although the formal top hats of the day are unsubstantial. By 1963, photos of groups of men outdoors with Kennedy typically reveal no hats on any men other than law enforcement.

Another contributor hearkened by Kennedy was longer hairstyles for men, which are prone to showing a dome-dent or hat-head upon doffing a cap. Conversely, with the drastic reduction of brimmed hats, baseball hats surged in popularity. While baseball caps do a relatively poor job of shielding the face, they do provide nose protection. Since the nose is the most common location on the face of the most common skin cancer, that is an important consideration.

Other societal changes were occurring as our agrarian society increasingly worked indoors in factories or offices. Suntans were no longer seen as an undesirable byproduct of laboring outdoors, but rather a luxury earned by hours baking in the sun leisurely. Few people wore sunscreen in the 1960’s, as it was not readily available and mostly consisted of radiant white zinc oxide, seen most often on the nose of a lifeguard. As sunscreen formulations improved and societal awareness increased, use of sunscreen, especially applied to the face, became more common.

Yearly growth in incidence of skin cancer from 1986 to 2006, at 3.1% for men, would make most economies envious. Over 5.4 million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed annually in the U.S. and over 4.8 billion dollars is spent to treat skin cancer (not including melanoma).

A lag time of years to decades between ultraviolet exposure and skin cancer development makes preventative statistics tricky. The influence of the relative lack of hats on heads over the last 50 years is impossible to determine. However, it is safe to say that the combination of light skinned people no longer actively avoiding the sun and relative lack of hats heavily contributed to the rise in skin cancer.

So is JFK partially responsible for the rise in skin cancer rates? He epitomized the baby boomer outdoor lifestyle: golfing, lounging, sailing in Hyannis Port, squinting in the sun; never once pictured in a hat.

A guess is best that can be made. But even if JFK’s influence contributed just 10% to the incidence of keratinocyte skin cancers, that equates to well over 480 million dollars a year. For dermatologists and skin cancer surgeons, hospitals and staffs, that is a lot of added income.

Thanks, JFK.

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