The family that's had blue skin since the 1800s

Illustration for article titled The family that's had blue skin since the 1800s

I'm beginning to wonder why we don't see more blue people. In Kentucky, there is a family that is a geneticist's dream, and a colorist's nightmare. Since 1820, they have had children, and eventually grandchildren and extended cousins, that have turned a deep shade of blue. Learn why they are a blue troop, and how you might make yourself the same way.

Recently I wrote about colloidal silver turning people blue. A commenter mentioned that we don't necessarily need to eat silver to make ourselves blue. There is a family that turns blue naturally. The first American blues started in 1820, when Martin Fugate came to the Cumberland Plateau area of Kentucky. Some say he had a blue tinge to his skin. Others say he did not and so he and his local bride were extremely distressed when their first child turn a deep shade of blue. Since then various members of the Fugate clan can be a light sky shade all the way down to a deep plum blue.

Illustration for article titled The family that's had blue skin since the 1800s

The children mostly seemed healthy enough, and lived and grew up in the area. They married local people. Not that many people traveled outside their local area in those days, and so the Fugates married the locals, and in time, extended cousins remarried over generations. Eventually, it was in no way surprising to see blue people in that neck of the woods. There are even old, blurry black-and-white photographs that have been tinted by what must have been a bemused artist, showing a family with a blue father or mother, and a group of children, some pink, some blue. This continued and spread well into the late 1970s, when doctors at hospitals in adjoining areas were alarmed to see blue babies being born. (One such baby, Benjy, eventually turned pink, but would regain a startling blue color in his face and nails when he was cold or angry. In a move that is clearly not a proud part of medical science history, doctors would crowd around him and try to make the newborn cry in order to see him turn blue.) But genetics only went so far. When blue people, especially babies, started turning up who weren't related to the Fugates, it was time to get to the bottom of things.

The Fugates had inherited methemoglobinemia. Everyone has hemoglobin, the cell in the blood stream that grabs and transports oxygen, releasing it in areas where it is needed. The hemoglobin in their blood was joined by a high level of methemoglobin. The Fugates' hemoglobin grabbed blood just fine, but because of the huge levels of methemoglobin, it could not release much of the oxygen to the tissues that needed it. The tissue, starved of oxygen, turned blue. The condition doesn't affect many people, because it's the result of stacked sets of recessive genes. But when people with these recessive genes settle in an area and are isolated for some time, recessive genes can be more common and predominate more than they would if they were in the general population.

Illustration for article titled The family that's had blue skin since the 1800s

And that's a fine genetics lesson, but why did people, especially babies, who weren't involved with the family and did not have those recessive genes turn blue? The answer comes in how methemoglobin is formed. We all know that we need iron to keep up healthy levels of hemoglobin. That iron can oxidize, or rust, right in our own body. When it does, methemoglobin is formed. The iron oxidizes in the presences of nitrites. Nitrites are good oxidizers, but are not healthy to have around the body. Often, though, peolple ingest nitrates, which are used in fertilizer and can get into the water supply. Bacteria convert nitrates to nitrites. Gastric acid tends to keep bacteria level in the body down. Young children often have trouble producing gastric acid and so too many nitrates can turn to nitrites, change hemoglobin to methemoglobin, and starve their tissues of oxygen, turning them blue.


The Fugates don't tend to have any medical issues associated with their oxygen-starved status (except for scary doctors). They can have difficulty in the cold, but live healthily into their seventies and eighties. Methemoglobinemia can cause real problems in some people, especially if oxygen is kept away from body tissues for an extended period of time, or from the brain for any period of time. Hematologists have found ways of treating the condition, but don't go blue just because you like the color.

Second Image: PEIR

Via NCBI, Science, and University of Nebraska.


Share This Story

Get our `newsletter`


"There are even old, blurry black-and-white photographs that have been tinted by what must have been a bemused artist..."

Why did this story not include some photographs taken with slightly more modern equipment?