There are a surprising number of reports of people with blue skin. A doctor might suspect cyanosis and think such a person was about to keel over from a coronary event or perhaps that this was a person who had ingested a great deal of colloidal silver which can turn the skin blue. An ethnologist might think this was a Tuareg, a north African people who wear blue-dyed clothing from birth and whose skins become blue — at least so long as they wear traditional clothing. But there are other cases of people who are permanently blue and they aren’t having a heart attack.
When Madison Cawein, a hematologist at the University of Kentucky, heard stories of blue people living up in the hills, his ears perked up. He suspected some kind of blood condition and, in 1960, began searching the Kentucky hills for blue people. And found them. “They were bluer’n hell,” said Cawein and he began tests to discover why.
Cawein came across an article in Blood, the journal of hematology, that described a similar condition among some Alaskan Indians and Inuit. The authors, E.M.Scott and Dale Hoskins, discovered that the blue-skinned people were deficient in the enzyme diaphorase causing a condition known as methemoglobinemia. Scott hypothesized that this was due to genetic factors that were exacerbated by a lack of vitamin C. Injections of methyl blue, a substance that is non-toxic and excreted in the urine, would reverse the process. Sometimes daily doses of 400 mg. of vitamin C would do the same thing, depending on the nature of the particular condition.
Cawein tested the blue people he found and, sure enough, they had low levels of diaphorase. He began injecting people with methyl blue and their skins turned pink almost immediately. Daily oral dosage would keep it that way. Some people were able to reverse the blue process with vitamin C which, effectively, repairs the hemoglobin damaged by lack of diaphorase.
The Kentucky blue people could all trace their ancestry back to a French settler named Martin Fugate. Martin had a recessive “blue gene” and, remarkably, married a young woman named Elizabeth Smith who also carried the gene. Their descendants all carried the same propensity for blue skin. It isn’t that two recessives lead to a dominant; it isn’t that simple. Having a single recessive gene can lead to a certain degree of blueness or not. There is a gradation in genetic effects that cannot always be predicted.
Blue people have been reported in other places than Kentucky and Alaska. In the 1930s a Doctor Deeny treated two Dublin brothers with vitamin C to reverse their blue tint. It may be worth noting that Elizabeth Smith was of Irish ancestry.
So the blue people can be cured. This is good news for them since, if there is too much blueness, too high a gradation of the gene, then serious medical problems may result. The blue people have brown blood which does not transport oxygen very well. And most of them felt a certain stigma. Mountain people are used to outsider mockery — think Jay Leno as Doofus with those stupid false teeth giggling about hillbilly incest and you understand why these folks are sensitive to genetic issues. John Stacy recalls that his father-in-law was blue. “All them old fellers way back then was blue.”
The only thing Stacy can’t or won’t remember is that his wife Luna was blue.When asked about it, he shakes his head and stares steadfastly ahead. It would be hard to doubt this gracious man except that you can’t find another person who knew Luna who doesn’t remember her as being blue.