The Science Behind The Mysterious Blue People Of Kentucky

Martin Fugate, Elizabeth Smith, and their children. williamdefalco/Youtube

Rosie McCall 04 May 2018, 14:34

The pair began meeting members of the Fugate tribe, including a couple called Patrick and Rachel Ritchie, who Cawain described as "bluer'n hell". "They were really embarrassed about being blue," he added. "Patrick was all hunched down in the hall. Rachel was leaning against the wall. They wouldn't come into the waiting room. You could tell how much it bothered them to be blue."

After a few medical tests to make sure it wasn't heart disease, the doctor and the nurse created a family tree. He suspected methemoglobinemia but couldn't be sure what was causing it. There were several suspects, including abnormal hemoglobin formation and excessive vitamin K consumption, but blood tests eventually revealed the true culprit: The blue Fugates lacked the enzyme diaphorase. 

Next, the cure. Cawain used a shot of methylene blue, a medication and dye, to turn Patrick and Rachel's blue skin pink.

Methylene blue: the blue-colored dye that can transform skin from blue to pink. Amanda Slater/Flickr

"They changed colors!" remembered Pendergrass. "It was really something exciting to see."

The effect was only temporary because the methylene blue promptly exits the body via the urinary tract. Knowing that it worked, however, Cawain left them a healthy supply of methylene blue tablets to take daily. The Fugates were no longer blue.

And what of the blue Fugates today?

Better connections and a more integrated world have meant that while the recessive gene may live on, it is far less likely to cause methemoglobin. As for Benjamin Stacy back in the 1970s, experts suspect he only had the one faulty gene – he grew out of his blue skin.

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