The science that explains the blue people of Kentucky
Kentucky is nicknamed “The Bluegrass State” due to a strain of grass commonly grown on its lawns and in its pastures. University of Kentucky’s school colors are blue and white. But none of this explains the blue people of Kentucky. These folks actually had skin that was blue, and the trait lasted for several generations. The science behind the phenomena is nowhere near as incredible as having an azure epidermis, but it’s darn useful for setting minds at ease. (If you don’t have blue skin already, you’re not going to wake up with it one morning.) Here’s why some people in the bluegrass state turned blue, even without holding their breaths.
Blue due to methemoglobinemia
A condition called methemoglobinemia, met-H for short, caused some people to have blue skin. Not quite Smurf tone, but definitely indigo over the epidermis, with purple lips. Some blue-skinned adults looked pretty much like a heart attack in progress. But methemoglobinemia, other than being hard to spell for the record books, didn’t have any associated health problems. From what science can tell us, it was mostly genetic, originating from a faulty gene that had lackluster amounts of the enzyme called cytochrome-b5 methemoglobin reductase.
Origins of the blue people of Kentucky
A Kentucky family from the 1820s were certainly not the only people in the world to have blue skin, but they are the most publicized. As the story goes, Martin Fugate, an orphaned Frenchman, was the first American with blue skin. He road into Troublesome Creek, Kentucky, in 1820 and wooed the lily-white Elizabeth Smith. Fugate’s skin was a rich blue, but she was still smitten and they married.
The two had no reason to suspect that they’d pass this trait onto children. For one thing, no one knew much about genetics at that time. Gregor Johann Mendel’s groundbreaking genetic studies, starting with pea plants, wouldn’t be published until 1866. His news about dominant and recessive traits probably wouldn’t have reached the rural area where the Fugates lived anyhow. No background in genetics means no one would have suspected that an alabaster skinned woman with red hair could have a recessive gene that could carry this trait of blue skin. Even Mendel would have been amazed by the minuscule odds of two people with this recessive trait meeting and marrying. But that’s what happened, and four of Martin and Elizabeth’s seven children were also born as blue people of Kentucky.
A century of blue skin
Especially in those superstitious times and in such a rural area, the Fugates tended to be objects of bullying, discrimination, and gossip. Today’s scientists know that met-H can be occupational, or caused by skin being exposed to mixtures including benzocaine and xylocaine. But the Fugates’ met-H was genetic and a direct result of inbreeding. At the time, the family lived in an area far from roads or trains that could take them to meet and mingle with people who could provide a wider gene pool. While intermarrying wasn’t acceptable in those days, the isolation made it more or less inevitable. For more than a century, the family intermarried and had children within their own bloodline. Many of the offspring had blue skin. As progress made its way to Eastern Kentucky, new citizens arrived and the bloodline started expanding with unrelated family members. As a result, fewer and fewer family infants ended up with met-H, and blue skin gradually became a thing of the past.
But there was still one more to come! In the 1970s, Benjamin Stacy was born with the family’s signature blue skin. No one was expecting this, though the post-partum explanation that he was Martin Fugate’s great-great-great-great-grandson helped explain things. You may consider this sad or wonderful for Stacy, but he lost that blue skin tone as he aged. But who knows when the recessive gene might make another appearance?