Marie Antoinette never uttered those famous words
Marie Antoinette never uttered those famous words "Let them eat cake!". She did apparently suffer from greying hair in the days before her execution. (Image: Wikimedia)

You’ve probably heard the famous story, circa 1789, of Marie Antoinette saying, “Let them eat cake!” when she heard that the poor had no bread. Though that story has actually been debunked (the famous words were uttered by Marie-Thérèse, a Spanish princess who married King Louis XIV in 1660), there is another tale concerning the renowned French queen worth sharing: Marie Antoinette Syndrome.

The syndrome named after Marie Antoinette

Another tale to come out of the French Revolution is a phenomenon you are likely familiar with but might not have known there was a name for.

Marie Antoinette Syndrome (also known as canities subita) occurs when your hair turns white or gray almost overnight.

As the legend goes, when French revolutionaries captured an actively fleeing King Louis XVI and had him brought back to Paris for a little kiss from the guillotine, Marie Antoinette knew that she was next in line. Worse, her turn with the “French Equalizer” would be occurring within twice days. As a result of the stress of what was most likely the longest two days of her life (and certainly her last), when Marie was brought to her execution, her ash-blonde hair had turned completely gray.

Like seeing a ghost

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Most of us associate this phenomenon with horror movies, where someone gets royally scared and suddenly gets a streak or huge patches of white hair. Then there are the stories of survivors of bombings during World War II experiencing a sudden and dramatic palette change in their hair. Jump forward to 2014, and we can refer to a more modern example by the name of Oscar Pistorius.

The Olympic sprinter who wasn’t fast enough when it counted

Oscar Pistorious began displaying visible signs of Marie Antoinette Syndrome whilst being tried for the murder of Reeva Steenkamp in 2016. (Photo: Wikimedia/Jim Thurston)
Oscar Pistorious began displaying visible signs of Marie Antoinette Syndrome whilst being tried for the murder of Reeva Steenkamp in 2016. (Photo: Wikimedia/Jim Thurston)

An Olympic and later a Paralympic sprinter, Oscar Pistorius had a bad Valentine ’s Day in 2013, though certainly not as bad as the one experienced by his partner, Reeva Steenkamp. As his story goes, Pistorius mistook her for an intruder upon arriving home and promptly shot her through the bathroom door. In court in 2016, Pistorius began exhibiting quite visible signs of Marie Antoinette Syndrome, with round patches of white appearing in his hair and some even falling out!

Marie Antoinette Syndrome affects not just Queens and Olympians

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The condition seems to occur when the stress is just right. In another example, from 1982, a British Air Captain by the name of Eric Moody, demonstrated amazing resolve when flying a Boeing 747 on what was to be a routine flight from Kuala Lampur to Perth.  With 239 passengers in tow, he would get the test of his life when passing over the Indonesian island of Java.

Aside from being the first place where Indonesian coffee was grown, Java is also the home of Mount Galunggung, a volcano that just happened to erupt as Captain Moody and his passengers were flying over it. Tremendous amounts of volcanic ash started taking out the engines until there were none. But miraculously, Moody managed to save the day.

However, within six months Captain Moody noticed the tip of his “quiff” (a lock of hair on the forehead) had turned white.

When does Marie Antoinette Syndrome strike?

Many believe that canities subita is not so much your hair turning white but rather the pigmented portions falling out to reveal some white that was there all the time. The phenomenon, however, is not fully understood, and there have been cases of people in their 20s seeing something shocking and going “ivory” in a flash. Whatever the case, when you see a white streak of hair where there normally isn’t, be sure to show some respect. Or if you can’t, why not perpetuate Marie Antoinette’s most famous myth by sending an anonymous slice of cake? You know you want to!