When a French orphan named Martin Fugate, in about 1820, married a local girl called Elizabeth Smith, the couple decided to settle on the banks of Troublesome Creek in Kentucky to claim a land grant. However, unknown to them, there was a recessive gene the couple carried which was called Met-H. The couple became parents to children who looked nothing like them. Their children’s color was blue.
Martin Fugate and his wife though unrelated did not have any symptoms of the recessive gene. Instead, they were a perfectly normal white couple, while their children inherited the recessive gene, which gave them a condition known as Methemoglobinemia. This blood disorder leads to the abnormal production of Methemoglobin, a form of hemoglobin.
The blue color of the Fugate family baffled the people and led to all sorts of wild theories. Some speculated that they had heart disease, while others claimed that the Fugate’s suffered from lung disease. But because they did not have a medical understanding of the condition, some just dismissed the blue skin color as just “their blood being closer to the skin.”
Unknown to the people, however, was that the Fugate family’s problems and chief cause for the continuation of the blue color on their children’s skin was a secret that the Kentucky hills kept up until the 1960s when doctors studied the Fugate family. It turned out six generations of intermarrying because of isolation brought about by lack of roads led to parents passing on the recessive gene to their children. Yet, despite all this, for about 150 years, the Fugate family thrived in the hills of Kentucky, living up to old age into their 80s or 90s.
In the 1960s, Martin Fugate’s descendants with the recessive gene resided all over Cumberland Plateau, Kentucky. At the same time, a World War II army medical technician vet and hematologist, Madison Cawein started to work at the University of Kentucky when he heard about the blue people.
Madison Cawein and a nurse, Ruth Pendergrass, searched for the blue people. They first ruled out heart or lung disease when they first met them, but then Madison and Ruth asked the blue people whether they had relatives who also were blue; Madison suspected Methemoglobinemia. After analyzing blood samples drawn from members of the Fugates family, or the Blue Fugates as they were known, Madison came up with methylene blue as the possible cure. Methylene blue is a form of dye.
Soon after that, Madison and nurse Ruth rounded up some of the Fugate family members and injected them with methylene blue, where within minutes, their blue skin turned to normal. Though it was a temporary fix and not a permanent one, the Fugate family members were finally treated.
Dennis Stacy, a descendant of Martin Fugate, referring to why the isolated Fugate family members kept on intermarrying, said, “When they settled this country back then, there were no roads. It was hard to get out, so they intermarried.”
Do you think the simple things we take for granted such as transportation and the ability to move about, saved us from ailments like having blue skin? What are your thoughts?
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