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HISTORY

Blue Fugates: The rare genetic trait that made this family’s skin blue

For almost 200 years, the Fugates welcomed blue-skinned babies to their peculiar family.

Blue-skinned beings have ruled our collective imagination in fiction with iconic characters; however, the world would be amazed when fiction trespassed reality in 1975 when a baby boy with deep blue skin was born in a small hospital in Kentucky. The doctors were shocked by Benjy Stacy’s rare skin color since it wasn’t a hue that suggested some sort of bad oxygenation, but a color they hadn’t seen before in any human being.

The doctors were so aghast by the baby’s condition and felt so useless to help him that they decided to call an ambulance and send him to the University of Kentucky Medical Center. There, baby Benjy was subjected to endless tests to try to find out what was wrong with the baby, but they failed to find a logical answer.

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They finally approached the family and were surprised to learn from Benjy’s grandmother that there wasn’t anything wrong with the baby. She simply asked the doctors if they had “ever heard of the blue Fugates of Troublesome Creek.” Turns out, Benjy Stacy was just one of many family members who, for the past 197 years had welcomed blue-skinned members. So, who were the “Blue People of Kentucky” or simply “Blue Fugates” and why was their skin blue?

Who were the Blue Fugates?

The story of the peculiar Fugates dates back to 1820, when Martin, a French orphan decided to settle in the small town of Troublesome Creek in Kentucky. He soon married a young local named Elizabeth Smith and both started a lovely family secluded from the world and with one characteristic that would shake the world two centuries later.

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Not knowing and being a mere act of coincidence, Martin and Elizabeth shared a rare genetic condition that made four of their seven children be born with blue skin. The four children were perfectly healthy so, with no apparent risky condition but their rare skin tone, the family grew bigger and bigger.

Since back in those days, rural towns like Troublesome Creek were not connected with roads or even railroads (the town became connected to the rest of the state until the 1910s), the Fugates started marrying each other, thus passing that rare recessive gene within their own bloodline. According to genealogist, and descendant of the Fugates, Dennis Stacy, “It was hard to get out, so they intermarried.”

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Why was the Fugate family blue?

For almost two centuries, the Fugates carried the rare gene welcoming new blue babies into the family. As the town became more and more open to the public, some of the youngest Fugates started to feel resented for their condition, even though locals accepted them. This started to change when it became evident that the fact that the blue skin condition had been inherited through inbreeding.

By the early 1960s, two of the blue Fugates made some research and decided to approach a doctor from the University of Kentucky, a hematologist by the name of Madison Cawein. The latter, used collected some studies and research made on isolated populations in Alaska and after some time, concluded that the Fugate family carried a very rare hereditary blood disorder called methemoglobinemia. As the name suggests, this condition produces excessive levels of methemoglobin in the blood thus tinging the skin blue.

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Methemoglobin is a blue version of the regular red hemoglobin protein that carries oxygen. In white-skinned people, hemoglobin gives a particular pink tint, so, since the Fugates produced excessive methemoglobin, and they would be considered caucasian, their skin looked blue. Cawein explained that this blood disorder is the result of a rare recessive gene that requires both parents to have it to be visible in their children, and since both Martin and Elizabeth had it (and later on the family intermarried) chances of breeding blue-skinned babies was big.

Fortunately for the youngest Fugates who wanted a cure for their blue-skinned, condition, methemoglobinemia had a simple yet effective treatment, and that was using a chemical called methylene blue dye to turn methemoglobin into hemoglobin. In a matter of minutes, the blue color of their skin turned pink. They would just need to take the pills regularly to keep their skin pink.

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When baby Benjy Stacy was born, it had passed almost a decade since the family found an explanation for their rare skin condition. Nowadays, most of the Fugate descendants have regular Caucasian skin and no one keeps their blue skin. However, those with the recessive gene, still experience the blue coloration whenever they’re flushed with anger or embarrassment, but nothing that their pills can’t deal with.

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