Bicycle Face – A Fictitious Disease of the 1800s
Once the bicycling craze took possession of bicyclists, many wheelmen and wheelwomen supposedly began suffering from a disease known as “bicycle face.” Doctors soon gave warnings that women, girls, and middle-aged men should avoid excessive cycling. One explanation as to why bicycle face occurred was that it came about when a cyclist over exerted his or herself while also attempting to balance and maintain an upright position on a bicycle. However, in reality, some people claimed that bicycle face was nothing more than a fictitious disease invented by the medical community who wanted to discourage women from bicycling, as bicycling gave women a sense of independence and that threatened nineteenth-century men.
A Dr. E.B. Turner wrote a cautionary article about bicycling and noted that “no one who is unsound or delicate should commence to cycle … There are some ailments … in which to mount a bicycle would be simple suicide.” A medical review journal also noted:
“[A]llusions have been made to the effect of bicycling upon the physiognomy of the rider, to the so-called bicycle face. We have seen such a face and were struck by its characteristics, and we attributed this characteristic face to the result of an intense bicycle race … We must admit that we have so far only seen two such faces, one being particularly striking … For the sake of completeness we must add that these two bicyclists had been caught in a profuse rainstorm.”
Doctor Benjamin Ward Richardson, an eminent British physician, born the same year that two infamous Edinburgh murderers (Burke and Hare) committed a series of sixteen murders, later wrote the multi-volume series, The Asclepiad, with the first volume appearing in 1884 that warned against “immoderate cycling.” He stated:
“[C]ycling should never be practiced by boys and girls, since it differs from other exercises in the fact that it moulds the bodily framework, as it were, to its own mode of motion; and riders in course of time almost invariable acquire what he calls ‘the cyclist’s figure,’ which is not graceful, and is not indicative of the possession of perfectly balanced powers.”
Once introduced as a possible disease, bicycle face quickly gained currency and discussions about it were rampant as doctors began to discuss the health aspects of such an activity. The disease was described by one person in this way:
“[It is an] earnest and grave expression usually worn by the rider while making his paces, and various suggestions [have been] … ventured as to the nervous effects that it forebodes.”
The Springfield Republican wrote, “in almost any company of wheelers the ‘face’ can be seen.” The newspaper also claimed that there were several types of bicycle face with one being described “as ‘usually flushed, but sometimes pale, often with lips more or less drawn, and the begging of dark shadows under the eyes, and always with an expression of weariness.” To further point out the health dangers, it was stated:
“Bicycling can very easily be made as violent exercise as running, and yet men and women who would no more think of running a mile at the top of their speed than of flying, will unthinkingly use as much strength and nervous force in fast riding or hill-climbing on their wheels, and wonder why they are so tired after it. The expenditure of energy which some inexperienced riders indulge in, in what may seem to them only a short ride, is nothing short of recklessness, and is almost certain to be followed by consequences more or less serious.”
The idea of bicycle face soon spread as the dark shadows under a cyclist’s eye and the weariness of bicycle face supposedly affected more than bicycle riders. According to one source, the disease affected almost anyone in motion.
“Nobody can ride any animal or any machine that requires the centralization of thought without his features reflecting the concentration. Railroad engineers, sailors, drivers of trotting horses in races, jockeys, cavalrymen, and all other equestrians have the bicycle-face.”
Not everyone agreed. Sir Frank Bowden, a British businessman and the founder of the Raleigh Cycle Company, didn’t specifically address bicycle-face, but he did find cycling beneficial to a person’s overall health. He himself had been seriously ill when his doctor advised him to take up cycling. He bought a bicycle from a small shop on Raleigh Street, Nottingham, run by Messrs Woodhead, Angois and Ellis. He soon noticed a miraculously recovery in health and was so impressed that he acquired control of the bicycle company in 1887. Of cycling’s benefits, he wrote in 1889:
“To those who are troubled by constipation, indigestion, piles, varicose veins, chronic or rheumatic gout, sluggishness of the blood, want of action in the skin, lassitude, loss of appetite, or lack of muscular power, cycling is curative or decidedly beneficial, when, like medicine, it is taken with regularity, and in doses suitable to the complaint.”
Dr. Turner’s investigation of bicycle-face also had him noting that the disease was a sham and stated that the bicycle “hump” also known as “‘kyphosis bicyclistarum’ need but provoke a smile, provided only that the reader observe the good old cycling rule: ‘Sit easily upright and keep your eyes well in front of you.'”
Despite Dr. Turner providing various cautions related to cycling, he did state that bicycle face was not the only fictitious disease some nineteenth century people claimed existed. There was also apparently “the bicycle-hand [and] … bicycle foot.” Something known as the “bicycle blush,” which unlike bicycle face was “neither deformity nor affliction,” also existed. Supposedly, bicycle blush could be seen on the faces of unaccompanied young women as they wheeled about the streets and was described in the following manner:
“Or, she may be reclining leisurely at home after her ride, and still possess the bicycle blush. In fact, wherever she may be it will cling to her. The blush in question results from the generous inhaling of fresh air, from the healthful exercise of the body and from the consequent free circulation of the blood. Plenty of life-giving oxygen is responsible for the bicycle blush, and the best way to produce it is to mount and roll away.”
-  Shaw, Albert, Review of Reviews and World’s Work, Vol. 17, 1898, p. 748.
-  Medical Review, Vol. 32, 1895, p. 208.
-  Edwards, Joseph F., The Annals of Hygiene, Volume 5, 1890 p. 271.
-  The Phrenological Journal and Science of Health, Vol. 99-100, 1895, p. 239.
-  Literary Digest, Vol. 11, 1895, p. 548.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Wood, Horatio C., American Medico-surgical Bullet, vol. 8, 1895, p. 1152.
-  The Graphic, January 26, 1889, p. 23.
-  Shaw, Albert, p. 748.
-  Good Roads, Vol. 27, 1898, p. 177.
-  Ibid.
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