A handy new book in our reference department is Answers to the Health Questions People Ask in Libraries. I was using this book to answer a reference question the other day, and I stumbled across an interesting question.
“What is porphyria, and is it really the origin of the vampire and werewolf myths?” (196). What?!
Reading on, I found out that Porphyria is not a disease, but the name of a group of several different disorders. The disorders are caused by a build up of chemicals in the blood, known as “porphyrins.” Symptoms of the disorders can vary but can include visual hallucinations, disorientation, extreme sensitivity to the sun, blistering of the skin and scarring, and excessive facial hair growth (196).
Looking for more information, I went to The Vampire Book: the Encyclopedia of the Undead by J. Melton. According to Melton, in 1985 a scientist at the University of British Columbia by the name of David Dolphin caused a debate over this very topic. He wrote a scientific paper stating that untreated porphyria cases were the cause for reports of vampires (542).
Dolphin pointed out that one of the treatments for the disorders is the injection of heme, a common substance found in blood. He then concluded that people suffering from the disorders in the past may have attempted to drink the blood of others to get rid of their symptoms.
A New York Times article from 1985 goes further into Dolphin’s thesis. According to Dolphin, if left untreated, these disorders can have a disastrous effect on the body. Dolphin wrote that for those with the disorders,” …exposure to even mild sunlight can disfigure the skin, cause the nose and fingers to fall off, and make the lips and gums so taut that the teeth, although no larger than ordinary, look like they are jutting out in a menacing, animal-like manner.”
So why do victims of vampire bites become vampires themselves? The New York Times article states that Dolphin even had an answer for this. (Yes, he stretches the theory even further out on the limb of the crazy tree.) He suggested that family members could have shared the defective gene that causes porphyria, but that only one of them might exhibit symptoms. If that family member then bit a sibling to get blood, Dolphin stated that “… the shock of the experience might have triggered an attack of the disease in the bitten sibling, thus producing another vampire.”
As fascinating as this is, it is important to note that in the medical community today, Dolphin’s theory has been discarded (Melton, 542).
For current information on the disorder, check out the Porphyria Foundation. The Porphyria Foundation points out another interesting tidbit about the history of the disorder. Some medical experts believe that King George III suffered from it (which they say could explain his mental illness in later life).
You know what’s really weird? Last week was national Porphyria week, and I didn’t even know it until I wrote the end of this blog. I totally did not plan that!
Have a question about the undead? Need to know where to find the next Twilight book? You know who to call.
Boffey, Philip. "Rare Disease Proposed as Cause for Vampires." New York Times 31 May 1985.
Kane, Laura T. Answers to Health Questions People Ask in Libraries. New York: Neal-Schuman, 2008.
Melton, J. The Vampire Book: The Encyclopedia of the Undead. Detroit: Visible Ink, 1999.