Saturday, January 20, 2007

Vampirism as Disease?

University of British Columbia chemistry professor David Dolphin has a hypothesis about the origin of vampire folklore. He is an expert on porphyrins, which are ring-shaped metal-binding molecules. The best-known porphyrin is heme, which binds iron and, when complexed with the protein hemoglobin, transports oxygen. Porphyria is a family of inherited disorders caused by faulty heme production. People with the cutaneous type of porphyria are acutely sensitive to sunlight, a trait often ascribed to vampires. And there are other possible connections to vampirism, as Dolphin explained in a recent presentation :
Dr. Dolphin admits it’s only a theory but drinking blood would have allowed them to absorb more heme, which feeds back to ease up on excess porphyrin production. In fact, porphyria patients today get heme injections. Porphyrin build-up in teeth can make them appear reddish, possibly like bloody fangs. The disease is even associated with excess hair growth, especially on the forehead, possibly leading to the vampire’s trademark widow’s peak. The aversion to garlic may be explained by the fact that some chemicals in the plant, such as diallyl sulfone, increase the production of porphyrins in the body. Of course, he points out, that a wooden stake through the heart would kill anyone. As for the lack of a mirror image, Dolphin joked, “I’m a chemist, so I’ll leave that to the physicists.”
While it's an interesting proposal, the Straight Dope takes a much more skeptical view:
(1) Porphyria comprises seven separate disorders. Skin problems are a fairly common symptom, but only the rarest form--congenital erythropoietic porphyria--causes severe disfigurement. Just 200 cases of this disease have been diagnosed, surely too few to account for the widespread belief in vampires. In any case, alleged vampires exhumed in the 18th century typically weren't disfigured but appeared as they had in life (except for being dead, of course).

(2) The idea that vampires abhor sunlight was an invention of fiction writers. In Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries, vampires were sometimes reported to have been sighted during the day. Bram Stoker's Dracula was deathly pale, but folkloric vampires, in the Balkans anyway, were said to be ruddy-faced due to blood consumption.

(3) Porphyria victims don't crave blood. Drinking blood will not alleviate their symptoms, nor has there ever been a general belief that it would. The blood chemicals porphyria victims need do not survive digestion.

(4) In light of the preceding, the scenario described in point #4 above [Porphyria symptoms can be brought on by stress - being bit by a sibling who also has the disease is stressful - the bite "causes" you to turn into a biter too] is unlikely.

(5) No one has proved that garlic worsens porphyria.
When the Straight Dope wrote the article in 1999, they asked Dolphin for comment:
When I phoned, he didn't wish to speak to me and would say only that "it was just speculation" and that "I haven't worked in this area for many years."
The response is a bit amusing in light of the fact that he lectured on the topic a just a few months ago. I guess the idea was just too interesting to give up.
Heme molecule via Dr. Karl Harrison's Chemistry, Structures and 3D Molecules site.
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  1. Anonymous3:30 PM

    Actually, in Stoker's novel, Dracula does sometimes come out in daylight. The idea that vampires are allergic to sunlight was probably introduced by Hollywood.
    The classic SF treatment of vampirism as a disease was Richard Matheson's I AM LEGEND. I believe it was supposed to be a bacterial infection in the novel.

  2. I have to admit that practically most of this is beyond my comprehension, nonetheless, as a person who enjoys writing scifi it will become an invaluable resource should I need some serious biology in a story.

    Thanks for this :)

  3. Anonymous4:12 PM

    Dolphin's theory is just another example of trying to make sense of something mystical. Sure, Porphyria exists, and it may have been responsible for the initial belief in vampires, but I think it is clear that when people think and talk about vampires they do not mean someone with an actual disease, but rather a mystical creature of nightmares. Thanks for this post, though, as it is clearing up some things for me in an ongoing discussion.

  4. Anonymous8:45 PM

    Hi leestein,

    It wasn't quite Hollywood that founded the lore about vampires being "allergic" to sunlight - but Prana-Film.

    In 1922, they released Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens - an illegal adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) - and it became the first source ever to introduce the lore of vampires being harmed in sunlight.

    It should be noted that in the novel, Dracula has no aversion to sunlight. Indeed, he is spotted in sunlight on a few occasions. Its only affect on him, however, is the limitation of his powers.

    But, back to the film.

    What tends to be forgotten about it, is that the lore it introduced was a tad more specific in regards to sunlight:

    "One can recognize the mark of the vampire by the trace of his fangs on the victim's throat. Only a woman can break his frightful spell--a woman pure in heart--who will offer her blood freely to Nosferatu and will keep the vampire by her side until after the cock has crowed." ~ Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror (1922)

    And it wasn't until 1943, that the lore of vampires being harmed by sunlight was introduced into American movies, with the release of Son of Dracula.

    Thus, the idea of porphyria being an inspiration for the much older vampire belief, is largely based on these non-traditional concepts. This is one of the reasons that makes Dr. Dolphin's premise extremely flawed.

    Although he wasn't the first to devise it (that "honour" probably rests with Nancy Garden's book Vampires, 1973), it is unfortunate he still perpetuates it as a solid theory, despite it having largely been discredited.

    Norine Dresser wrote an excellent chapter on the effect the widespread coverage of the theory had on actual porphyria suffers in her 1989 book, American Vampires: Fans, Victims, Practitioners.

  5. Anonymous6:46 PM

    Look the whole idea could have been several disease that were lumped into one. Lupus causes in a small number sensitivity to light. they are probably pale and porphorin problem lets face it who has not had the urge to lick a wound. I assume that most of these disease have a paltry associated with them. so we have several disease that onset at different times or under different factors and whamo you get the legend of vampires.

  6. he seems to only be talking about cutaneous porphyria, and not the acute form, which is what i was first thinking of - hmm...siezures, bloating, purple pee (from where the name comes from) and headaches and digestive problems dont exactly scream 'VAMPIRE'...but the cutaneous effects of the disorder do seem similiar -

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  8. My thinking is that these type of disease are related with each other in some form or in some way.

  9. Shannah2:30 PM

    Hey, thanks for this post but my view of this "discussion" if you will, is that maybe just maybe people who have these symptoms of Porphyria may have other disorders that are not "linked" with this particular disease yea some maybe and i must say i am no doctor or scientist (though i excelled at science in school).... it is my belief that even though Porphyria is a good idea of how vampirism came about but it could also be from the black death that accured in Europe... i read in one of my science classes that some people with the pleague had also had bruising mainly on their neck and shoulders... now i do not know if that is true or not of course but hey whatever i figured i would put my two cents in since everyone else was lol.... oh and if you wanna read books about the disease Porphyria or as some call it "vampirism" you should read "PEEPS" by Scott Westerfeld... it is indeed a really good book its all about parasites and vampirism a college kid gets the disease when he loses his v-card if you will to a mysterious young woman... he has to find all his ex girlfriends because he spread vampirism to them just from kissing or sex... my friend Cat-Girl (is wat our group use to call her she would rather the nickname online than her real name lmao) read this book our junior year of highschool and i read it this year (our senior year) i found it extremely informational on parasites and vampirism it gives a different insight of the vampirism disease and it was entertaining and had a unexpected twist at the end so if you are looking for a book thats informational on weird things and yet entertaining "PEEPS" by Scott Westerfeld is an AMAZING book that will give you both facts and laughs :)

  10. Shannah I think you are right, that the idea of vapirism arose out of more complicated reasons than some people having a disease.

    And Peeps is a great reading suggestion.

  11. Anonymous2:46 AM

    This whole vampirism histeria indeed originated from Romania and was indeed associated with Dracula but is totally different from what people may think. First of all, I don't know how many of you are familiar with history on the Balkans (Eastern Europe) but for quite some time there was Turkish suppression there. Dracula was indeed of noble kin, who however was a vasal (idk if this is the proper English word) and had to pay taxes to the Turkish sultan. Many people were slaughtered and some forced to change their religion (which you as you may know was a huge huge problem in the middle ages). As a result, revenge was sought for, and Dracula was quite innovative at this by organizing traps for Turkish suppressors and doing a mass impaling where the dead bodies of the suppressor would slowly fall down a steak. As they did so, Dracula demonstrated his domination by drinking their blood and forcing his men to also drink the blood of the enemy in order to gain their power (some Eastern European superstition). As a result, you can imagine, Turks wanted to catch Dracula and kill him and it would be much easier to do so during the day (when he was hiding), compared to during the night. Since in Turkish beliefs a dead body is seen as the worst thing you can encounter, Dracula's mass feasts were scaring most of the even most powerful Turkish soldiers and they feared the "night-appearing" person, so much that legends started to spread about him. And scientifically speaking it is possible that digestion of blood could be used as a source of nutrients - take mosquitoes for example. In many cell cultures experimented on in the lab, haemolytic agar plates are prepared (agar plates containing blood as a source of nutrients), and you can ask every cell biologist about this. I don't know how exactly the principle works, but two things are sure: The vampirism legends as we all know them are nothing more but myths coming from superstitious people. And second, using blood as a source of nutrients is fact in nature. I don't know whether vampirism is real or not, and whether there is truth in the myths but I just wanted to share what I know to be true for sure

  12. Anonymous6:13 PM

    Haha, vous les gens ne sauront jamais la vérité. You are all fools.

  13. I always find it amusing when people try to use science to explain the mystical. Not really talking about this article as such, but movies and books where vampires are portrayed as ordinary people who have contracted some kind of disease that makes their heart stop beating, gives them supernatural strength and powers, and make them so sensitive to the sun that they burst into flame on exposure. Right. Just like the zombie movies where some virus causes the dead to rise again and walk around looking for flesh to eat. All the time their bodies are rotting and most don't ever get anything to eat, yet their biological systems (muscles) still seem to work just fine. Sorry, but both monster ideas work so much better when we just resort to magic or fantasy than when we try to come up with a scientific explanation for the supernatural.


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