Sunday, March 22, 2009

Vampirism and Porphyria

The link between vampires and porphyria has been in popular circulation since 1985, when Dr. David Dolphin (a prominent Canadian biochemist) presented his theory connecting the two, to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

It even inspired some real-life sufferers of the disease to make tenuous links between their condition and vampire "mythology". Tammy Evans, founder of the Porphyria Education and Awareness Foundation, authored an autobiography called Porphyria: The Woman Who Has "The Vampire Disease" (Far Hills, NJ: New Horizon Press, 1997).

I find the correlation between the two rather unfortunate. It also betrays a distinct lack of knowledge of vampire folklore.

Rather than rehash my thoughts on the subject, I'll direct you to a couple of blog entries in which I've illustrated just how flimsy the theory is.

First, there's Peggy Kolm's "Vampirism as Disease?", Biology in Science Fiction. Here's a direct link to my comment on the blog entry.

Next is Elizabeth Miller's "Porphyria and Vampirism: Crappola 101" for her LiveJournal. My comments to it are here and here.

It's good to see this "modern myth" torn apart and exposed for what it is: pure speculation with no substance in "reality".

If you think my attitude to a "harmless" theory is harsh, then you should have a read of Chapter 6 (titled, "Vampire Victims") in Norine Dresser's American Vampires: Fans, Victims, Practitioners (New York/London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1989), pp. 171-199.

Here's a sample, relating the aftereffect of the theory's popularisation:
One patient said that as soon as the media bombardment occurred, her phone rang constantly. Some friends now avoided her, but she was mainly disturbed at being the butt of jokes, many of them having to do with drinking blood in the middle of the night. She was bitter. "Nobody makes fun of leukemia or MS." (180)
Thus, it is most disturbing to hear this theory still, occasionally, being perpetuated.

Most disturbing of all, is that one of the people responsible is...Dr. David Dolphin himself!

Elizabeth Miller's aforementioned blog entry recounts her attendence of one of his lectures, entitled, "From the Bench to the Bedside to the Bank: How to Make Money from Vampires!" in 2006.

After confronting him with the harmful attention some porphyria sufferers experienced at the hands of the media and his theory, he brushed it off saying
"That is why I now refer to vampires in the Middle Ages." He seemed completely oblivious to the ethical implcations. I was reminded of Victor Frankenstein and his monster.
This is quite a shame, because, as Mark Dawidziak points out in The Bedside, Bathtub & Armchair Companion to Dracula (New York/London: Continuum, 2008), p. 101:
Dolphin's research credits are impressive, by the way. He is the lead creator of a medication used in connection with laser eye surgery, and, in 2005, he was awarded the prestigious Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering.
This, of course, doesn't make him a qualified vampire researcher, though.

For one thing, I could point out that the "vampires" Dolphin discusses, were not even in existence during the Middle Ages. But that is another story!


Angelique said...

Freaking excellent blog post! I am glad someone has put this together. Each October around Halloween, thousands of articles about porphyria and vampires make the news. It disgusts me because it is true, no other patients are made fun of like this. Physicians and nurses are more familiar with the mythical aspects of this disease (this is ALL they seem to know due to this BS publicity), than they are about treatments, symptoms or anything else. Some cannot even spell porphyria, but they certainly have heard about the association with vampires!

Again, great work :)

Anthony Hogg said...

Hi Angelique,

Cheers for your comment.

I think there is certainly a move towards disassociating vampires from the "porphyria theory", but it's sad to see it still reproduced as a viable explanation for the vampire myth.

As you indicated, it's bad enough for porphyria sufferers as it is, without being associated with bloodsucking corpses, as well!

The primary "proof" for the "theory" is the bad reaction porphyria sufferers have to sunlight.

There are a host of other conditions that feature this characteristic too.

Only problem is, the vampires of folklore weren't said to have any reaction to sunlight. Not even Stoker's Dracula did. Instead, his powers were merely limited during the day.

F. W. Marnau's Nosferatu (1922) is frequently credited with being the first source to introduce the concept of vampires being harmed by daylight to vampire "lore". Much more recent than the "Middle Ages", I'm sure you'd agree!

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