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hroughout history, many strange medical conditions have been discovered. Some of these conditions are so peculiar that many do not believe the stories that historians tell about them. How is it possible that a man could eat metal? Although such a statement sounds fake, there were indeed multiple people throughout history who have had this ability. The condition we will explore today is unlike that described above. In our case, the condition experienced by this family in Kentucky was very visible and, as such, created much media attention around it. Today we will talk about the Blue Fugates family.

Kentucky

Our story starts near the town of Hazard, Kentucky, where Martin Fugate and Elizabeth Smith settled down. Unknown to the couple at the time, they both carried a recessive methemoglobinemia gene. This gene changed the pigmentation of their children’s skin, making it have a blueish hue.

Although it made the Fugates look sick, this gene didn’t affect their bodies in any other way except for changing the pigmentation of their skin. All descendants of the Fugates went on to live their lives mostly unaffected by this gene health-wise.

Modern-day picture of Hazard, Kentucky. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This gene was passed down among the people of the settlement being concentrated around the Troublesome Creek and Ball Creek area. As these areas were quite remote, as seen above with the hills surrounding the settlement, the gene was carried through different family lines through intermarriages leading to a high concentration of cases in this area.

The 20th century brought this case to light leading to many doctors studying the small pocket of this disease. Of all of the doctors who performed research on those who suffered from methemoglobinemia, the most significant has to be the hematologist Madison Cawein III and nurse Ruth Pendergrass.

Research and cure

Nurse Ruth Pendergrass. Source: Perry Co Medical Folk

Both the hematologist Madison Cawein III and nurse Ruth Pendergrass contributed heavily to the field of methemoglobinemia. Cawein probably had the biggest impact as he found out how to treat the disease. As detailed in a paper, he published in 1964, if methylene blue is injected into a patient with this condition, the blue hue created by the disease starts to disappear.

Both the nurse and the hematologist contributed heavily to a project where the family tree of all sufferers of the disease was compiled. This allowed them to trace back the disease to the two people mentioned before, Martin Fugate and Elizabeth Smith, although it is believed by many to be inaccurate. Modern-day research into the subject of all methemoglobinemia patients being descendants of the Fugates has come up with inconclusive answers.

Due to their research, the last known person to be born with an active methemoglobinemia gene, Benjamin Stacy, born in 1975, was treated, and the symptoms of the disease disappeared as they grew up, putting an end to one of the weirdest medical sagas in US history.

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