September 20, 2012

The Blue People of Troublesome Creek

"They looked like anybody else, 'cept they had the blue color," Stacy says, sitting in a chair in his plaid flannel shirt and suspenders, next to a cardboard box where a small black piglet, kept as a pet, is squealing for his bottle. "I couldn't tell you what caused it." source

you learn something new everyday. this morning i came across an article about globalization potentially leading to ethnic homogenization that began with a story about Martin Fugate and his descendants in Kentucky. they had a disorder that made their skin blue. yes, blue.

Fugate and family- obviously a b&w photo that was hand-colored (source)
Fugate was a French immigrant who settled in the Kentucky hills in the early 19th century. he and his wife were carriers of a rare condition called Methemoglobinemia, which affects the molecular composition of blood, giving one's skin a blue appearance. their children each had a 1 in 4 chance of acquiring the disorder, and a 1 in 2 chance of becoming an unaffected carrier. due to the times, culture, and isolation of rural Kentucky (as one Fugate put it, "There was no roads"), a fair amount of intermarrying occurred, which created a micro-population of blue people. this enclave lasted well into the 20th century, but when new railroad tracks coincided with coal mining job opportunities down the line, most of the group dispersed and eventually began to mate outside of their community. the condition continues to be carried down through generations and there are a few modern examples. a similar disorder be acquired by ingesting large amounts of various metals, like this guy. it's usually because the metals exist in the water supply or prescribed drugs, but he was purposefully taking silver for preventative health reasons. oops!

photo source
The line of Fugates continues, and a descendant was born with traces of the disorder as late as 1975. the doctors were ready to administer a blood transfusion after the baby boy was born with blue skin, until his grandmother stepped in and explained the condition. his skin eventually faded to a normal color, but for a while his lips and fingernails would turn blue whenever he was cold or angry. it is said that there are still blue people living in the hills of Kentucky, but as no one has seen any, it seems they prefer to be left to themselves.

(has anyone listened to the Radiolab episode about colors? in it, they discover that blue is almost always the last color identified and named by civilizations, due to its rare occurrance in the natural world. i want to email Jad and let him know about this particular example!)

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