The Blue Fugates of Kentucky

A portrait depicting the Fugate family by artist Walt Spitzmiller

The Fugates – also known as the “Blue Fugates” and the “Blue People of Kentucky” – were a family famously recognized for their distinct blue skin, a trait passed down through several generations.

Their story began around 1820, when a French orphan named Martin Fugate settled in Eastern Kentucky’s Troublesome Creek. He married Elizabeth Smith, a fair-skinned woman. While the narrative has been passed down through folklore and historical records, what is consistently recounted is the result of their union: of their seven children, four had blue skin.

This was a symptom of methemoglobinemia – a blood disorder where an abnormal amount of methemoglobin (a type of hemoglobin) is produced. The disorder can manifest with symptoms ranging from blue skin to heart abnormalities and seizures, especially if the blood’s methemoglobin concentration exceeds 20%. Yet, for most of the Fugates, the condition was largely benign, resulting in blue skin without other significant health issues.

Neither Martin nor Elizabeth displayed symptoms of this condition, making the appearance of this trait in their children a bewildering phenomenon. The mystery endured due to the limited pool of potential marriage partners in their isolated Appalachian community, leading to intermarriage and inbreeding among families which would perpetuate the genetic condition.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that Dr. Madison Cawein III, a hematologist from the University of Kentucky’s Lexington Medical Clinic, took an interest in this unique case. Through exhaustive research, family charts and blood samples, Dr. Cawein identified the cause of the blue skin as methemoglobinemia, a condition which came about from an enzyme deficiency. Treating the condition, he used Methylene Blue, effectively reverting the blue skin to a normal tone.

The Fugates’ story has reverberated beyond the confines of medical textbooks. Their legacy has seeped into popular culture, inspiring fictionalized accounts in books and TV shows.

Benjamin Stacy, born in 1975, was the last known member of the Fugate family to be born with blue skin.

Written by Editorial Team

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