Blue People in Kentucky: The True Story of the Fugate Family with Blue Skin

A (Healthy) Blue Baby

“Have you ever heard of the Fugates of Troublesome Creek?”

This simple question by a knowing grandmother solved a riddle for a little boy born blue.

When little Benjamin “Benjy” Stacy was born in a small hospital near Hazard, Kentucky, he was the picture of health. He was also very, very blue. So blue, in fact, that his skin was the deep purple color of a plum. His doctors were alarmed by the child’s color, and immediately sent him by ambulance to a hospital in Lexington, Kentucky.

Little Benjamin was subjected to an enormous variety of tests in an attempt to explain the startling blue color. While he did not appear to be in any distress, doctors began to set up a blood transfusion for the tiny baby. That was when his grandmother decided to speak up:The boy’s father explained that his paternal grandmother Luna was also blue – and apparently was quite healthy in life.

Benjy’s blue color started to fade a bit over the next few weeks, and as he grew the only remaining traces of blue coloration were in his lips and nails – the color was particularly noticeable when he became cold. The doctors came to the conclusion that Benjy had inherited a rare gene found in the Appalachians – a gene which turned entire generations of one family blue.

A sketch of Martin Fugate and his family, in Troublesome Creek, KY.
A sketch of Martin Fugate and his family, in Troublesome Creek, KY. | Source

French Orphan Martin Fugate: The First Blue Man in Kentucky

In 1820, Martin Fugate and his wife Elizabeth Smith moved onto the banks of Troublesome Creek, a beautiful area in Appalachian Kentucky. There is no official recording as to whether Martin was actually blue, but he and his wife both carried a recessive gene that would turn their son Zachariah Fugate a startling blue color. Martin and Elizabeth had seven children: four of them were blue. Since the gene causing the blue coloration is recessive, the family had a 25% chance of having a blue child with each pregnancy.

Since the Appalachian region was rural and isolated, inter-marriages occurred. Fugate descendents married other Fugate descendents, concentrating the “blue gene” over the generations.

Luna Fugate, little Benjy’s great-grandmother, was one of the bluest Fugates known to the Appalachian region. Luna was described as being blue all over, with lips the color of a dark bruise. Although blue, she was entirely healthy, and had 13 children in her 84 year span of life.

The blood on the left has a bluish tinge, due to excess amounts of methemoglobin. The blood on the right is normal.
The blood on the left has a bluish tinge, due to excess amounts of methemoglobin. The blood on the right is normal. | Source

What Caused the Blue Skin Color?

Scientists, of course, were quite intrigued as to the cause of the blue skin tone among the Fugate family. In the 1960’s, a young hematologist named Madison Cawein traveled to the region, with an aim to cure the blue people of their skin color. The doctor hiked through the Appalachian hills, on a mission to find the famous blue people of Kentucky.

He finally found a family willing to participate in her study of the condition, and ruled out any heart or lung condition as the cause of the blue skin. Apart from being blue, the people were entirely healthy.

Dr. Cawein began to suspect a rare condition which causes a blue form of hemoglobin to circulate in the blood. The condition is called methemoglobinemia, which is caused by large circulating amounts of methemoglobin – the methemoglobin is not harmful, but large amounts of the non-functional hemoglobin will tint any tissue containing a blood supply blue.

The first family to volunteer for research, Patrick and Rachel Ritchie, did not want to be blue. Dr. Cawein did several tests to find the cause of the methemoglobinemia, and found the Fugate family was missing an enzyme called diaphorase, an enzyme that converts the methemoglobin back into functional hemoglobin. As the Fugate family’s methemoglobin could not be reconverted into the normal hemoglobin molecule, the blue methemoglobin began to build up and become very obvious in the pale skin of the affected family members.

Methylene Blue: it turns blue people pink.
Methylene Blue: it turns blue people pink. | Source

An Ironic Cure for Blue Skin

One way to convert blue methemoglobin back into red hemoglobin is to use a dye called methylene blue. Ironically, a blue dye could change the blue color of the affected blood into a normal red color. Ascorbic acid is another method of treating the condition.

Of course, it was a tad difficult to convince the blue people of Kentucky that a blue dye would cure the condition: Patrick and Rachel volunteered to try the treatment.

A simple injection of the dye caused a stunning color change: within minute, Patrick had gone from blue to pink. Having found a way to cure the blue skin color, Dr. Cawein left the people with a supply of methylene blue pills – the pills must be taken on a continual basis, since the body eliminates the dye on a regular basis.

Since the dye also tints the urine blue, some of the older mountain people thought the blue color of their skin was literally “pouring” out of them.

As coal trains and other modern highway connectors began connecting Troublesome Creek with the rest of the nation, people began leaving the area. The gene is no longer concentrated, and the chance of intermarriage between two gene carriers is remote. Still, the possibility does exist – as the parents of little Benjy Stacy proved.

The gene found in the Fugate family is from a line of French Huguenots, whose descendents settled into Kentucky, Ireland, and Finland.

What Became of Benjy Stacy?

The little boy born blue has grown up. He attended Eastern Kentucky University, married, and lives a perfectly typical life in Fairbanks, Alaska. Other than an occasional worried comment from unknowing friends about the color of his lips or fingernails, there is little outward sign of the methemoglobinemia.

Types of Congenital Methemoglobinemia

One form of congenital methemoglobinemia is caused by a deficiency in NADH cytochrome b5 reductase. It has several types, which vary in severity of the symptoms:

Type I: This type is limited to the red blood cells, and causes a blue color.

Type II: The enzyme is deficient in all tissues, and devastating systemic effects are seen – mental retardation, a small head size, and other central nervous system problems are severe. The child will also present with a blue color.

Type III: The entire blood cell system is affected, including platelets, white blood cells, and red blood cells. Fortunately, this variant does not cause any medical problems (other than a blue skin color).

Type IV: This type only affects the red blood cells, and causes a chronic blue color. No other medical problems are associated with Type IV.

The majority of methemoglobinemia cases are caused by an acquired problem: the person has been exposed to oxidizing drugs, toxins, or chemicals. In the case of acquired methemoglobinemia, the patient must be monitored for low blood oxygen levels and anemia, as the amount of circulating normal hemoglobin may be reduced to extremely low levels.

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Comments 55 comments

Scribenet profile image

Scribenet 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

It is interesting what you learn on Hubpages! Thank you for an interesting Hub!

Esmeowl12 profile image

Esmeowl12 5 years ago from Sevierville, TN

I agree with Scribenet. Very interesting.

Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

Extremely interesting hub! Amazing that the blue dye affects the skin tone reverting it back to a normal color. Thanks for this hub about the blue people in Kentucky. Up and interesting!

leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 5 years ago from Western New York Author

I remember hearing about this phenomenon back in my genetics class (ages and ages ago) - I thought it might make an interesting hub. Thanks for the compliments!

Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 5 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

Just when I think I have heard it all..........

Well thanks for this very interesting Hub. I am just amazed.

leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 5 years ago from Western New York Author

It is really fascinating, isn't it? I guess Dr. Cawein had a difficult time finding the family at first - he would see a "blue person" on a hill, but if he approached, they would always run away. Most were embarrassed about the blue skin color (not knowing it really was a medical/genetic condition).

Jo_Goldsmith11 profile image

Jo_Goldsmith11 5 years ago

this is something interesting to read. I live in Kentucky and I will keep an eye out for "blue people". Take care..voted up..interesting! :)

leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 5 years ago from Western New York Author

Good luck finding them! With the methylene blue treatment and the dispersion of the Fugate descendents into the general population, finding anyone with a blue skin tint would be difficult today - but you never know!

Gary Shorthouse profile image

Gary Shorthouse 5 years ago from Reading, UK

I agree with all the comments - very fascinating indeed.

Have you ever read any Margaret Atwood? I think she is one of the best authors of our time.

In her pre and post apocalyptic books 'Oryx and Crake' (2003 - Booker Prize finalist) and 'The Year of the Flood' (2009), Crake, a genetic engineer, creates a race of (perfect) blue people with which he intends to repopulate the world after normal humans have been wiped out by a virus he also engineered.

Put like that it sounds weird, but they are a great read.

leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 5 years ago from Western New York Author

I LOVE Margaret Atwood. The first work I read was "The Handmaid's Tale," and I loved it. I have read the Oryx and the Crake, and had forgotten about the perfect blue people in the novel (it has been a while - I think I read the book about 10 years ago). Thanks for the reminder - I need to read The Year of the Flood - haven't read that one yet.

I have a thing for dystopian futures - I'm pretty sure there is something tweaked in my brain, lol!

RTalloni profile image

RTalloni 5 years ago from the short journey

I've heard of some interesting replies to caring/nosey questions, but to be able to say, "I have methemoglobinemia" would be a mouth full! Very interesting read.

leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 5 years ago from Western New York Author

I have a feeling that the word "methemoglobinemia" would simply send most nosey questioners packing! There aren't many people walking around with the (congenital) condition, since it is easily treated - but there are people with acquired forms (from silver mining, etc.) that live with a blue tint to their skin!

Stacie L profile image

Stacie L 5 years ago

yes I've heard of them and met some descendants of them,who are not blue.

I was a teacher in the hills back in the 80's and saw things I never thought I would see;

having grown up in suburban NY that is.;-)

leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 5 years ago from Western New York Author

A lot of people think the "Blue People of Kentucky" are a myth, but it is a real condition! I have a friend with a family member that worked in the silver mines and acquired a blue tint to his skin, but that is obviously quite different than the genetic condition. Apparently, the number of people showing the blue skin has dropped dramatically - it would be hard to find anyone today. For one thing, the genetic pool has been broadened, and for another... the treatment is very simple and effective!

It must have been very interesting to teach in Appalachia - we live in Western NY, but I have never really been to the Appalachians. It would be an interesting place to live!

Alladream74 profile image

Alladream74 5 years ago from Oakland, California

A very interesting read. Fascinating to see how they treated the condition.

leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 5 years ago from Western New York Author

Thank you, Alladream74 - it is interesting that the methylene blue dye treated the condition: the people being treated could hardly believe such an ironic "cure!"

naturalsolutions 5 years ago

Are they real? I think blue people unbelievable.

But that picture shows that blue people do really exist. thanks for your hub, now I have a little bit of knowledge about them.

leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 5 years ago from Western New York Author

The people are real - though it is caused by a blood disorder which is correctable. So there really isn't a "race" of blue people, but rather a group of people which inherited a condition which alters the hemoglobin in their blood - which turns them blue! Strange, yes, but true!

jamterrell profile image

jamterrell 5 years ago

This hub really makes me read the entire story. Very interesting.I really never thought of blue people. I though they were only a myth. Great information. Really feels good to know about these unique creatures.

leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 5 years ago from Western New York Author

It is interesting, isn't it? When I first heard about the condition, I thought it had to be a myth. Once I learned about the blood disorder at the root of the blue skin color, it made a lot more sense. I can only imagine how shocked the people were that a little blue dye cured the condition!

Kris Heeter profile image

Kris Heeter 4 years ago from Indiana

I first heard about this during my grad school studies - it's very fascinating in many ways. You did a nice job of presenting the medical history behind it as in interesting story - very nice!

leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

Thanks, Kris! I have always found the "blue people" fascinating - though the population has thinned out and there is a treatment for the disorder, it must have been a shock when the first researchers stumbled across entire families with blue skin!

Au fait profile image

Au fait 3 years ago from North Texas

Very interesting. I have never heard of this before. Voting you up and will share this hub with my followers.

Sharkye11 profile image

Sharkye11 3 years ago from Oklahoma

This was a fascinating read. I can't believe I have never heard of this in all my weird medical research. You did an excellent job with the layout--I even read it aloud to my husband (who hates hearing me read anything aloud) and he was really fascinated!

leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 3 years ago from Western New York Author

Thanks, Au fait. I can only imagine the doctor's surprise when little Benjy Stacy was born with blue skin! It is a fascinating genetic condition.

leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 3 years ago from Western New York Author

The people with the condition were so shy and embarrassed about their blue skin - I found it ironic that the cure for the condition was a blue dye. Ascorbic acid would work, too, but it isn't nearly as interesting as the blue dye. Thanks for the comment, Sharkye11!

Shyron E Shenko profile image

Shyron E Shenko 3 years ago

My dear friend Au fait suggested that I read this hub, I was not disappointed. This is facinating. I had never heard of blue people before.

Voting you up and will share!

leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 3 years ago from Western New York Author

I love interesting snippets from history that never make it into the history books, Shyron - the blue people in the Appalachians have always struck my fancy. I am glad you enjoyed the article!

Southern-Style profile image

Southern-Style 2 years ago from Nashville, TN

And here I just thought they were some dye hard Wildcats fans. Great hub keep up the good work!

melbel profile image

melbel 2 years ago from New Buffalo, Michigan

Wow! What a strange condition! I've never heard of this. I love learning about rare/strange events in history. Awesome hub, thanks for sharing!

Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel Kariuki 2 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

Very very enlightening! Never heard of blue people except green when people say 'black , white yellow or green' to metaphorically say all races included - shared!

carlajbehr profile image

carlajbehr 2 years ago from NW PA

Crazy interesting - well-written and well-researched! Voted up.

Jenn-Anne profile image

Jenn-Anne 2 years ago

Very interesting and well-written story! I had heard of these people before but never heard what caused the problem. Thanks for sharing - voted up!

billyj 2 years ago

Crazy stuff, but I have an aunt by marriage who is related to this family. Some of her siblings have the blue tinge.

leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 2 years ago from Western New York Author

Southern-Style, it is interesting, isn't it? I was fascinated when I heard about this condition.

Melbel, I agree - I love learning about historical events that aren't typically covered in textbooks.

Emmanuel, I suppose they should add "blue" to the saying.. though in this case the color is not due to ethnicity, but to a medical condition.

Thanks for the comments, carlajbehr and Jenn-Anne. I found the condition to be interesting, too!

Billyj, it is so fascinating that you are related (by marriage) to this family. The condition is inherited, so I am sure there will be sporadic cases here and there. Since the area is not geographically isolated anymore, I suspect that the incidence will decrease with time.

TimArends profile image

TimArends 2 years ago from Chicago Region

Blue people in the bluegrass State… I guess it makes sense! I went to Berea College and it tries to cater to people of all ethnicities but I didn't see any blue people while I was there!

leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 2 years ago from Western New York Author

The genetic trait has largely disappeared due to shifting demographics as the area became less isolated. It is an interesting phenomenon, though, Tim!

Nancy Coleman 8 months ago

According to my Fugate family genealogy, Martin was not a French orphan but a 4th generation Fugate and was my great, great,great, great, grandfather. The Fugates in this area came here from Russell Co, VA. This article was written about 50 years ago and people should stop photoshopping the old photographs. It is an interesting story but old and not so sensational as it used to be yet people keep dredging it out of the internet and putting ridiculous photos with it. A while back I saw my great grandparents photo(and I have a copy) with them dyed all blue. We Fugate descendants are a little tired feeling like the rest of the world is making fun of us for a medical condition. Go ahead and discuss it if you wish but please quit putting up those doctored up pictures because there are people dumb enough to believe everything on the internet is true.

shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 8 months ago from Texas

I think this popped up as a featured hub somewhere. It caught my attention because I know a blue lady. She uses oxygen and I have assumed whatever her health condition is, the blue is a result of that. I've never asked. But now I am curious.

Jasmeetk profile image

Jasmeetk 8 months ago from India

interesting..Never saw anyone with blue skin.

tony55 profile image

tony55 8 months ago from Nigeria

Fascinating stuff, i have heard of blue babies but not blue adults. Nice writing style very captivating.

Kimberleyclarke profile image

Kimberleyclarke 8 months ago from England

What an amazing article! Reminds me of the colloidal silver stories, of people turning blue. Fascinating, thank you!

Priya Barua profile image

Priya Barua 8 months ago

Very interesting. Concise and well written. Loved the article.

Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 8 months ago from England

I know I have read this before, but its so interesting! lol! blue people, well whoever would have thought it?

kittythedreamer profile image

kittythedreamer 8 months ago from the Ether

This is super interesting...I'd never heard of this before in my life. Great article. So well explained too.

Ameraka 8 months ago

Awesome. I've never heard of this. It's cool that it's not a harmful condition. And I thought only aliens were blue! (haha)

RGraf profile image

RGraf 8 months ago from Wisconsin

I've heard of these for years as my father's family is from there. Just recently I knew they were Fugate's. I'm related to Fugates in Western Kentucky.

m abdullah javed profile image

m abdullah javed 8 months ago

It's amazing. First of its kind in the world, the details with regard to the change of color and there by its cure is a worth read. Thanks for sharing. leahlefler

cfin profile image

cfin 8 months ago from The World we live in

In the Irish language the term for black people is "Daoine Gorm", which translate directly as "blue people". It was a term of respect. I wish the world had more colours. Purple people would be nice!

LynetteBell profile image

LynetteBell 8 months ago from Christchurch, New Zealand

What an interesting article. Thanks.

darciefrench profile image

darciefrench 8 months ago from BC Canada

Krishna was blue too :)

Gaurav Oberoi profile image

Gaurav Oberoi 8 months ago from Chandigarh

Wow what a fascinating hub. Thanks for sharing.....

Orhan 7 weeks ago

Tori D 2 weeks ago

Your page is very informative, but you don't have all of the information on this 'condition'. You are lacking the type that my family and I have. We have type M, and there is no cure for it. The blue dye that you keep on saying is a cure for it, really isn't. The people in my family who have this, have tried it before and it will confirm us "normal" looking for a few short minutes and then we return to our normal blue state. It is caused by a mutation in our red blood cells that cause us to only be able to 'carry' 50% of the oxygen as everyone else does. Many of my family have volunteered (including myself and my younger sister when we were kids) to let doctors study us and our blood disorder. My sister and I were seen by many doctors and specialists at U of M, and have quite a bit of knowledge about our blood disorder and how unique our type is to our family. I'm almost always surprised when I come across a doctor who has previous knowledge of it before they meet me, but almost all of them think that I don't know what I'm talking about and try to put me under one of the other types and ignore me on it.

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