‘Werewolf Syndrome,’ Hypertrichosis, Responsible for Werewolf Legends?

June 24, 2015 Updated: June 25, 2015

A rare genetic defect causes some people to be born with hair all over their bodies. Fewer than 100 cases of hypertrichosis, also known as “werewolf syndrome,” have been documented in scientific literature and media reports, geneticist Xue Zhang told New Scientist in 2009.

Fedor Jeftichew, better known as Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, a man with hypertrichosis who performed in a Russian sideshow, ca. 1880s. (Charles Eisenmann)
Fedor Jeftichew, better known as Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, had hypertrichosis and performed in a Russian sideshow, ca. 1880s. (Charles Eisenmann)

It has been found that people with hypertrichosis have an extra chunk of DNA, which may switch on a hair-growth gene nearby. Pragna Patel of the University of Southern California coauthored a study looking at the causes of hypertrichosis published 2011 in the American Journal of Human Genetics. Though the condition was mapped to a particular chromosome in a Mexican family, “the underlying genetic defect remains unknown,” the report stated.

Patel told Live Science in 2011: “If, in fact, the inserted sequences turn on a gene that can trigger hair growth, it may hold promise for treating baldness or hirsutism [excessive hair growth] in the future, especially if we could engineer ways to achieve this with drugs or other means.”

Some people have the hair growth in a localized area, others have it all over the body. 

In 2010, Supatra “Nat” Sasuphan of Thailand was named Guinness World Record’s hairiest child. She is proud of who she is and doesn’t hide it, Guinness noted. “Being hairy makes me special,” Sasuphan told Guinness.

Being hairy makes me special.
— Supatra Sasuphan

Savita Sambhaji Raut of Madhavnagar, India, gave birth to her fourth daughter with hypertrichosis in 2013. She told the Daily Mail: “I was so happy to have her alive, but it upsets me. … I am scared for her future but God has chosen us to be like this.”

Could this condition have started the legends about werewolves found in many parts of the world?

One of the most famous purported werewolves was Peter Stubbe (the spelling of his name varies), who lived in Cologne, Germany, in the 16th century. Legend has it locals cornered a wolf one night that had been terrorizing the town, only to find it had become a man they all knew, Stubbe. There’s no indication that Stubbe had hair all over his body. In this case, the idea that he was a werewolf may have been motivated by his extreme depravity. He admitted to a secret life that involved Devil worship, incest, murder, and mutilating local livestock. 

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