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VAMPIRES, PORPHYRIA, AND THE MEDIA: MEDICALIZATION OF A MYTH MARY G. WINKLER* and KARL E. ANDERSONt Introduction Children play a game called "Rumor." It is a simple game: they sit in a circle and one child whispers a sentence to the next, who in turn whispers what she has heard to her neighbor. The fun of the game comes when the last child compares the garbled version of what she heard with the original message from the first child. A similar game sometimes occurs on the playground of history and is played by scientists and journalists who, unlike children, command the ear of the general public. A rumor may consist of speculation about an illness or physical anomaly described in history or depicted in art or, as in an example discussed here, told in myth and folklore. If the speculation is lurid or sensational enough, it may find its way into the news media. Even if it is never fully published, discussed, and examined by other scientists, it may become regarded as common knowledge and eventually be referred to even in the scientific literature. Such speculation may provide amusement for some but is certainly not fun for the victims of a disease. In this article we discuss a startling and potentially harmful speculation that has linked vampirism to a group of genetic diseases called porphyrias. The origin and spread of this idea, which more closely resembles rumor than scientific theory, Work supported in part by grants from the American Porphyria Foundation and the U.S. Public Health Service (FD-R-307 and 405). The authors express appreciation to Patricia Jakobi for allowing one of us to read her unpublished work, and to the American Porphyria Foundation and the many who provided clippings and other material that were useful in preparing this review. * Institute for the Medical Humanities and fDepartments of Preventive Medicine and Community Health, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, Texas 77550.© 1990 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 003 1-5982/3304-0695$01.00 598 I Mary G. Winkler and Karl E. Anderson ¦ Medicalization of a Myth have threatened to adversely change the image of these diseases. We will attempt to discuss how science and medicine should relate to such legendary phenomena and point out that the media, scientists, and historians have individual responsibilities in such matters. We will make no attempt to comprehensively discuss alternative explanations for the origins of the ancient vampire myths—a subject recently and ably addressed by Barber [I]. Origins of the Rumor about Porphyria In 1964, L. Ulis published "On Porphyria and the Aetiology of Werewolves" [2]. The author sketched the history of the concept of the werewolf and concluded that the descriptions of werewolves extant in legend and folklore corresponded to some manifestations of congenital erythropoietic porphyria, one of the rarer types of porphyria. He suggested that primitive peoples may have developed the idea of the werewolf from contact with sufferers of porphyria. The article showed some command of historical sources and was not sensational. Moreover, it stressed that the theory was speculative. A major defect in the theory is that the werewolf of European folklore, in contrast to some werewolves in more recent novels, usually resembled a real wolf and not a combination of human and wolf [I]. As noted by Barber [1, p. 99], "Lon Chaney must not be adduced as evidence for what (folkloric) werewolves were like any more than Bela Lugosi may be used as evidence for what the vampires of folklore look like." To our knowledge, Illis's article received no great attention in the popular media at that time. It did, however, introduce, in connection with a specific genetic disease, the idea of a monstrous apparition, with mutilated hands, "mentally disturbed," roaming in darkness, and fearful of light. In 1982, almost 20 years later, David Dolphin, a very respected porphyrin chemist at the University of British Columbia, extended the speculations about werewolves and porphyria. In an address to the Royal Society, he suggested that there was a relationship between porphyria and the rise of the vampire legend. In 1984, an account of Dolphin 's thesis appeared [3] that seems to have captured...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 598-611
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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