Skin tone is often a hot social topic. The conversations surrounding the perceived rights of ‘visible minorities’ has long been a heated one. However, what if your skin color placed you in a tiny minority? A tiny and very blue visible minority.
The most famous of the blue people were the Fugates family. The blue Fugates weren’t a race but rather an excessively tight-knit family living in the Appalachian Mountains.
The patriarch of the clan was Martin Fugate, who settled along the banks of Troublesome Creek near Hazard, Kentucky, sometime after 1800. His wife, Mary, is thought to have been a carrier for a rare disease known as hereditary methemoglobinemia. Methemoglobinemia, in short, is a disease that causes blood to carry less oxygen which makes the skin of a Caucasian person display a bluish appearance due to the lack of oxygen.
It is usually a recessive condition however the Fugate family intermarried with another clan, the Smith’s, and someone in that family carried the same recessive gene. Because of the small size of the community the family continued to inbreed and the family continued to display the unusual color trait well into the 1960’s.
Researcher Cathy Trost, who compiled the most comprehensive history of the Fugates to date, says:
“The clan kept multiplying. Fugates married other Fugates. Sometimes they married first cousins. And they married the people who lived closest to them, the Combses, Smiths, Ritchies, and Stacys. All lived in isolation from the world, bunched in log cabins up and down the hollows, and so it was only natural that a boy married the girl next door, even if she had the same last name.”
And so, after ten generations, from Martin Fugates father, ‘blue’ people roamed the hills of Kentucky.
It was only when researchers investigating Benjy Stacy’s case discovered a report in the Journal of Clinical Investigation by EM Scott in 1960 that a cure appeared likely.
The descendants of the Fugates were then tested, and they too lacked this enzyme. Springing into action, doctors studying the Appalachian clans considered Scott’s findings and found their own methemoglobin converter – a dark blue dye called methylene blue.
Trying to convince members of the blue clan to have blue dye injected into them so they would revert to a natural skin tone must have been harder than trying to find the cure, but one couple conceded. Minutes after the methylene blue was administered the blue tinge to the skin was gone.
Since then, it’s thought that all the Fugates and their relations have been treated – records claim that by 1982 only two of three family members had methemoglobin. We’re guessing they’ve been sorted by now.
The article pointed to an absence of an enzyme from the red blood cells called diaphorase, which Scott found was lacking in some indigenous Alaskans he had studied previously.
Argyria is an extremely rare condition caused by the ingestion of elemental silver, silver dust or silver compounds and the most dramatic effect of argyria is that the skin is colored blue or bluish-grey. The most famous person with argyria was Captain Fred Walters.
Walters was born in England in 1855 and was a captain in the British army before a degenerative neural condition, locomotor ataxia, prompted his retirement. Treatment for his condition included the ingestion of silver and that regular ingestion caused Captain Walters to turn blue. He subsequently traveled to the United States in 1891 and began a career exhibiting himself for profit.
As time went on Walters allegedly increased his silver intake in an attempt to turn himself as blue as possible. For awhile, he was successful and his deep blue pigmentation resulted in more fame. However his heart eventually grew weak from the constant poisoning and gave out on August 20, 1923.