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Blue People Of Kentucky: Decoding the Mystery




People have discovered many strange and unbelievable medical conditions throughout history. Few of these conditions are so unusual that people who hear such stories from historians refuse to believe. For example, how can a human being survive eating metal? This kind of statement may sound hoax but the fact of the matter is that there were people indeed in history who had had this ability. Have you read or heard about people with blue skin?

Today we are going to explore one strange condition faced by a Fugates family in Kentucky in this article. There was so much media hype around that time.

The Blue People Of Kentucky – Know all the details

There used to exist a group of locals for hundred and fifty years in the area of Hazard, Kentucky who had blue-colored skin. It was later revealed that this ailment was a symptom of Methemoglobinemia. The victims of this problem were mostly descendants of the Fugate family of Kentucky, who came to be known as the Blue People of Kentucky or the Blue Fugates. Methemoglobinemia is an extremely rare genetic trait that changed the color of the skin to blue. The Blue Fugates, at times are also referred to as the Huntsville subgroup.

The Blue People Of Kentucky – The Fugate Family

Almost two centuries ago, in the year 1820 Martin Fugate, a French orphan settled near the town of Hazard, Kentucky. He married Elizabeth Smith and planned to start a family with his wife. Fugate was different from other men in that region. The couple was unaware of the fact that they both have a recessive methemoglobinemia gene. This rare genetic condition has turned his skin a striking indigo blue. They had seven children out of which 4 of them had skin like their father. The pigmentation of the skin used to turn blue in color because of the gene. Locally they were known as the Blue Fugates.

The area in which the couple was living was extremely rural and isolated. There was no infrastructure like roads etc. for the local citizens. Only in the year 1910, they got access to the railroad. There were very few families living there and few of them were related to Elizabeth. Fugates began inter-marriage as they were left with no option because of their isolation which led to a higher probability of passing along the met-H gene, and having kids with blue skin.

Other families in the nearby communities were scared that they might also have blue-skinned children so they avoided marriage into the Fugate family. Few descendants of the family moved out to settle in different parts of the country as time passed and new populations moved in, which allowed the Fugates to marry people outside their family who do not share their genes.

What is Methemoglobinemia and How is it caused?

Methemoglobinemia is a blood disorder caused by a metabolic condition that affects hemoglobin, the four-part protein that carries oxygen bound to an iron atom at each subunit’s core. It is caused either because of certain medications, chemicals or can be genetic as well wherein the patient inherits from parents. Diaphorase I (cytochrome b5 reductase) enzymes are found to be less in patients which causes a rise in methemoglobin levels and the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood is reduced. So the arterial blood of met-Hb patients is brown instead of red which results in the skin of the patients turning to a bluish hue.

It looked like some skin disorder made the Fugates family look sick However there was no impact on their bodies except for the color of the skin. Healthwise there was no impact on the descendants of the Fugates family as they lived longer. This case has caught the attention of the medical fraternity and doctors started research studying more about this disease.

Rachel and Patrick Ritchie, two blue descendants of the Fugates family met Doctor Madison Cawein III, a hematologist at the University of Kentucky’s Lexington Medical Clinic. The couple was embarrassed for their skin color as there was a perception in the minds of people that it is because of inter-marriage. In some areas, people accepted blue skin people whereas in other areas they faced a lot of discrimination and psychological trauma.

Research & Cure

Research work done by Hematologist Madison Cawein III and nurse Ruth Pendergrass was very significant to understand the root cause of this issue and take preventive action as well. Their contribution in the field of methemoglobinemia is immense. Both of them have compiled the family tree of people who were suffering from this disease. He published a detailed note in the year 1964 that the blue hue will start disappearing and stop the pigmentation of the skin if methylene blue is injected into the patient’s body suffering from this problem.

Hematologist Madison Cawein III and nurse Ruth Pendergrass have discovered during their investigation that there were two people with similar symptoms before Martin Fugate and Elizabeth Smith. There is still disagreement and debate among modern-day researchers that all methemoglobinemia patients are descendants of the Fugates family.

“You almost never see a patient with it today. It’s a disease that one learns about in medical school and it is infrequent enough to be on every exam in hematology. It also exemplifies the intersection between disease and society, and the danger of misinformation and stigmatization,” said Dr. Ayalew Tefferi who is a Hematologist from Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic.

Last Fugate Born with Blue Skin (Active Methemoglobinemia)

Benjamin Stacy, who was born in 1975 is the last known person born with the active Methemoglobinemia gene and his treatment was successful. Stacy is the great-great-great-great-grandson of Martin Fugate and Elizabeth Smith. There was panic among hospital staff as Benjamin was almost purple in color when he was born. As he grew up the indications of the disease cease to exist.

Final Words

Thanks to the research work by Haematologist Madison Cawein III and nurse Ruth Pendergrass who were successful in ending one of the bizarre medical sagas in the history of the USA.

Even today people discuss the Blue People of Kentucky. However, not everyone knows about Methemoglobinemia, which has been the reason for that blue-colored skin.

Archana Kabra
Archana Kabra is a Freelance Writer and has been extensively writing stuff related to Technology and Entertainment. She is also an ardent music lover.
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