The Blue-Skinned Family from Kentucky

In 1820, Martin and Elizabeth Fugate moved to the small town of Troublesome Creek, Kentucky. This couple would go on to have seven children. Normally, the story of such an undistinguished family in such an isolated place would have passed into history unnoticed by the rest of the world. But something would happen that would make medical researchers interested in this family for generations: three of their children were born with blue skin.

The Fugates’ children had a genetic mutation called methemoglobinemia, which caused their blood to be unable to carry as much oxygen as normal blood. This lack of oxygen made their blood darker, which made their skin blue. This condition, though it gives its victims a startling appearance, did not cause any adverse health effects in the Fugates, though it has been known to cause seizures and developmental disabilities. The affected Fugate children went on to marry, have children, and live a normal lifespan.

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The condition might have stopped with this first generation of Troublesome Creek Fugates had they not chosen to marry other family members. Because methemoglobinemia is a recessive disorder, both parents must carry it to pass it down to their children. The fact that Martin and Elizabeth were both carriers was an incredible coincidence. But when their son married his aunt and the other children married cousins, it greatly increased the chances that future generations would be born with blue skin. And this is exactly what happened, since the family lived in an area where few marriage partners outside the family could be found.

In the 1960s, Dr. Madison Cawein, a hematologist and researcher at the University of Kentucky, heard about the Blue Fugates. He desperately wanted to chance to study this rare condition, so he sought them out.

After spending some time with the blue members of the family, he decided that their blood was missing an enzyme. He then gave them injections of a dye called methylene blue in an attempt to trigger the blood’s processes. The effects were amazing, as the blue almost immediately faded from their skin, leaving them with a normal, pink color. Unfortunately, the effects of the dye did not last very long. However, Dr. Cawein prescribed them tablets of the dye that they could take every day.

As the area around Troublesome Creek became more populous, the Fugates began marrying more outside the family. As they did so, the number of Blue Fugates eventually decreased. The last one, Benjy Stacy, was born in 1975. Even so, his skin did not stay blue for long. It faded from his skin before he was one month old, but his lips and nails would occasionally turn purple if he got cold. Absent further inbreeding, it is possible that Benjy is truly the last of the Blue Fugates.

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