The Mysterious Blue People Of Kentucky

Grace Higgins | March 31st, 2020

The year is 1820 and one young couple has just arrived in a place called Troublesome Creek. This was a remote and small settlement deep in eastern Kentucky – the American dream of the New World. Martin Fugate is a French orphan and his wife is a red-haired woman called Elizabeth Smith. Elizabeth is very pale and there is even a written description of her being very beautiful. The odd part of the couple is Fugate, he has an extremely rare genetic condition that has turned his skin a striking indigo blue.

It sounds crazy but it is a real thing, blue skin does exist. The couple went on to have seven children, with four of them having the same genetic problem as their father. This is how the mysterious blue people of Kentucky started. As you can imagine during this time not much was known about genetic disorders, which caused the blue people to be shunned in society and treated very differently despite having no other health problems. Modern science tells us that genetic disorders are called genetic, you can’t catch them like a disease, they are passed down through families.

Fast forward a couple of hundred years into the 1970s and Benjamin Stacy has just been born, he is the great-great-great-great-grandson of Martin Fugate and Elizabeth Smith. In fact, at this point the blue people of Kentucky are just a distant memory, well, to everyone’s surprise, he is burning with the distinctive blue coloring.

Luckily now hospital staff and doctors knew more about genetic conditions, you see the blue skin comes from a condition called methemoglobinemia. It causes a different level of red blood cells, a higher level, which causes the skin to go blue, blood to go chocolate brown and lips to go purple. The condition can also be caused by exposure to dangerous chemicals, but on this occasion, it has been passed down through the family due to a faulty gene. Fortunately, there are no health problems associated with their blue skin.

What had happened is Fugate and Smith had the same rare genetic disorder, just it was not obvious in Smith as she was extremely pale to the point of being bright white. Then due to Troublesome Creek being a very small settlement, there was a limited supply of potential partners: sometimes family members ended up marrying aunts or cousins. Of course, this led to the conditions where the genetic disorder could thrive in.

As the world grew and became better connected, the conditions that allowed recessive genes to thrive have gone. Sure faulty genes still exist but it is far less likely for two people with faulty genes to come together.

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