From the Editor: The Ginger Gene

By Margaret Clay

“You have red hair!” a stranger exclaimed. Before I could agree that yes, I too had made that observation, she continued, “My niece’s daughter’s husband’s first-cousin-once-removed has hair your exact color. Did you know that redheads are going extinct? Such a shame. Where did you get your red hair?”

This conversation may seem remarkable except that it is a very common one, as all fellow carrot-tops can attest. The recessive MC1R gene is certainly known to pop up in unexpected places, often skipping multiple generations, and though they appear in every race, redheads make up less than 2 percent of the world’s population. Thankfully, the myth purported in the September 2007 issue of National Geographic that redheads would be extinct by 2060 has since been debunked.

We have an undeniably fiery history: the Ancient Greeks considered redheads to be vampires, ancient Egyptians sometimes sacrificed them, and Indian Brahmins were forbidden to marry them. Europeans burned them as witches through the 18th century, and French scholar Jean-Baptist Thiers wrote that red hair “was abhorred by the whole world, as Judas was said to be red-haired.” Prostitutes are also usually depicted with flaming locks. In the 20th century, Adolf Hitler opposed the marriage of redheads in order to prevent “deviant offspring.”

But despite our historic global struggles, redheads stand in good company — while only 4 percent of Americans have red hair, there have been seven redheaded presidents, which is about 18 percent. The “redhead hall of fame” includes such notable individuals as Emperor Nero, William the Conqueror, Christopher Columbus, Queen Elizabeth I, William Shakespeare, Napoleon Bonaparte, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, and Vincent Van Gogh, among many others. 

And perhaps Hitler’s fear of our “deviance” was not unfounded — for better or worse, studies repeatedly show that redheads are, well, unique. Amid all the various myths and conflicting urban legends, a few of the many fun facts (frequently recited to redheads by strangers) are as follows:

Redheads are more sensitive to hot and cold pain since we adjust more quickly to temperature changes. Doctors have also reported that for surgery, redheads can require 20 percent more anesthesia than average. 

Due to the low melanin in our skin, redheads are not able to absorb enough Vitamin D from the sun … so we just internally make our own!

Redheads typically have less hair than other colors with an average of 90,000 strands, while blondes average 110,000 and brunettes 140,000. But red compensates as the strands are typically thicker.

And while I manage most of the time to avoid the “fiery temper” trait often ascribed to gingers, I will admit that being a redhead is decidedly more than a hair color — it is an internal characteristic … for better or worse!


Margaret Clay

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