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Porphyria and vampirism: Crappola 101 - Elizabeth Miller — LiveJournal
Porphyria and vampirism: Crappola 101

On Friday I gave a lecture on Dracula at the University of Toronto for the University Lecture Series, organized by the School of Continuing Studies. During question period, one of the attendees (there were over 100 present) asked an intriguing question  (paraphrased): “I heard somewhere that there were many people in Transylvania who suffered from some terrible disease than prevented them from going out into the sun – and that this was where vampire legends originated.” I was so glad that someone asked that question, as it provided me with another opportunity to debunk one of the most idiotic theories ever put forward about vampires. And it started with a scientist who is still peddling his wares ad nauseam.

Here’s the back story. In the mid-1980s David Dolphin, a Chemistry professor at University of British Columbia, claimed to have discovered a major source of vampire legends. The stories were generated, he asserted, by cases of porphyria, a rare blood disorder, the symptoms of which are similar to what was believed about vampires. Most notably, he argued, sufferers from porphyria cannot bear the sunlight, a clear parallel to the widespread belief that vampires are destroyed by sunlight.

What a load of rubbish! Several people challenged his theory, but not before a media frenzy that made life almost unbearable for dozens of unfortunate victims of the disease. (For a detailed account of this whole fiasco, read Norine Dresser’s American Vampires.) Vampire scholars were quick to point out the fatal flaw in his theory: the destruction of vampires by sunlight is neither in vampire folklore nor in pre-20th century vampire literature (including Dracula). It is an invention of the movies, apparently first used as a special effect by F.W. Murnau in the 1922 “Nosferatu.” 

I thought – and hoped – that was the end of it. Until the fall of 2006, when Dr. Dolphin reared his opportunistic head once again. He gave a lecture at York University (here in Toronto) entitled "From the Bench to the Bedside to the Bank: How to Make Money from Vampires!" The title says it all! 

A friend and I decided to go, confident that he wouldn't start spouting the same old nonsense about porphyria and vampires. In fact, we expected a boring chemistry lecture, the vampire tag being merely a hook to bring in the audience. We even selected seats near the exit so that we could make a quick escape if we started to fall asleep.

Alas, it was not to be. Within a minute of beginning, he took us back to 1985 with his declarations about porphyria sufferers being the basis of vampire legends in the Middle Ages, notably their inability to stand sunlight, their severe reaction to garlic, their receding gumlines, etc ad nauseam. I could not believe what I was hearing. I'd heard nothing about this guy for years, and assumed he had long since given up this nonsense.

Anyway, he eventually moved on to the main point of his talk - how he has made money at pharmaceuticals. Ah - the real vampire stands up! I waited, ready for question period. But there were to be no questions from the floor, just a vague invitation to join the good doctor afterwards for a chat. I decided to do just that. I had to wait around while adoring grad students fawned over him and his brilliant research - with nary a word about vampires. Then my turn came. First I challenged him on the sunlight, stating categorically that his statements drew on flawed research. He denied that, claiming his main source was - get this!- Bram Stoker and his novel.

"Bram Stoker wrote Dracula. [I said nothing]. We know he did quite a bit of research at the British Museum [I kept quiet, wishing him into the trap]. He discovered that folkloric vampires were destroyed by sunlight..." [Trap door slams shut.] I set him straight.

Then I reminded him of the harm that all of his flawed "research" had caused in the 1980s due to the media frenzy and its impact of sufferers of porphyria. His response? "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.

The question last Friday reminds me that this ludicrous theory still lingers. I am determined to take every opportunity to debunk it.

12 comments or Leave a comment
From: vyrdolak1998 Date: November 12th, 2007 05:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
I get so exasperated with the way even academics, who should know better, grab onto the vampire motif as a way of getting attention and repeat the same old misconceptions and errors. All these so-called "rational explanations for vampire beliefs" that get cooked up by physicists, pharmacists, and whatnot are not only incorrect, they're based on characteristics of fictional vampires, not actual folklore.

I have an ongoing project (for promoting my websites, books and "brand") whereby I have news filters for anything vampire-related on both Yahoo and Google, and I comment on any articles that are relevant and that I can make an intelligent comment about. I got caught up with all those filters last night, and one article I found, and commented on, was a piece about a class titled "Slavic Folklore: Vampires and Werewolves," offered for "three units" at the University of Arizona. This very popular class is taught by both George Gutsche, "a self-confessed 'vampire fan,'" and Teresa Polowy, head of the UA department of Russian and Slavic studies. And yet the article included the following howler:

For Westerners, much of our vampire lore comes from Bram Stoker's 1897 novel, "Dracula," based on the 15th-century real-life ogre, Vlad Dracula, aka Vlad the Impaler.
While he never drank blood, he certainly caused a lot of it to be shed. "A friend pointed out that there was this Romanian prince called Vlad. Somehow, Stoker got on the track of using him," says Gutsche.

I corrected this in my comment--I even named the "friend," Arminius Vambery. Oh, and I added the URL of your website, Bloofer. :-)

But it remains true that even the "experts" and academics who give lectures and teach courses repeat the same hoary old misinformation. No wonder it won't die, when it's being repeated by people with published books and Ph.Ds!
dracschick From: dracschick Date: November 13th, 2007 01:08 am (UTC) (Link)
Thanks for that great post. I always remember Dracula being able to go about in sunlight. I don't think he can change shape though during the day.
blooferlady From: blooferlady Date: November 13th, 2007 01:36 am (UTC) (Link)
That's right. Several times in the novel, Dracula is seen during daylight hours. (I have actually found 9 such instances!) However, during the day he loses his supernatural powers.
dracschick From: dracschick Date: November 13th, 2007 01:47 am (UTC) (Link)


I didn't realize it was 9.

IMO, it's like having the flu all day and then getting the really, really really, big energy drink shot at the end of the day:)
paulbibeau From: paulbibeau Date: November 14th, 2007 01:06 pm (UTC) (Link)

Fascinating post...

I think the memetic "stickiness" of this porphyria nonsense comes from the desire people have for a single, secret theory to explain everything. I didn't know how utterly bunk it was, but I always had the notion that vampires were too complicated and widespread a myth to be started by one source. Yet people will come up to you with no facts, no citations, not even the Dolphin book, and they will intone, "You know, the reason people believe in vampires is because of this disease..." It's so tempting to have "the secret" behind something. It makes for a great conversation starter. It's perfect for talking about on TV, on radio, at a party. It just doesn't have the advantage of being true.
complicittheory From: complicittheory Date: November 18th, 2007 02:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
I enjoy hearing this more each time. Thanks for the pie last night! And the borge!
From: (Anonymous) Date: March 3rd, 2008 03:39 pm (UTC) (Link)

love your article...

A very helpful article; but say the writer of Dracula changed a few things around to make his book interesting; and say, some victims had more severe cases than others; the Dr. isn't saying that porphyria victims are vampires, but merely suggesting that that is where the myth came from. As for the victims, well, they shouldn't get offended; after all, it's a myth; nothing more.
From: (Anonymous) Date: March 15th, 2008 07:05 am (UTC) (Link)

In Defence and Regret of Dr. Dolphin

Hi Prof. Miller,

Firstly, I gotta say that I deeply respect your work. I'm glad there's someone out there who give the field of Dracula/vampire scholarship a kick in the pants.

I was actually going to write on here in defence of Dr. Dolphin. While Dolphin is widely associated with the connection between porphyria and vampirism - thanks largely to the overblown media coverage he received in 1985 - he was not the first to conjur up the theory.

I'm not sure if Nancy Garden first made the link, but she definately explicitly connected the two in her 1973 book, Vampires. Here's some relevant quotes from the Bantam Skylark 1979 reprint:

"A thank-you also to Joel Lamon and Diana Miller for telling me about porphyria, a rare disease no doubt responsible for some vampire legends." (p. xiii)

"An even rarer disease, called porphyria, may well have been responsible for many a vampire tale - especially since the disease is hereditary..." (p. 98)

However, I was greatly disturbed to find (from reading your blog entry), that Dr. Dolphin still perpetuates this highly erroneous connection. It's worrying that such men of science generate such hucksterism from extremely weak theories.

Dresser's chapter in American Vampires (1989) on the impact of such scientific negligence was certainly an eye-opener.

Though, I think such criticism should also be extended to those who make tenuous links between vampire belief and other conditions like schizophrenia, et. al.

~ Anthony Hogg
blooferlady From: blooferlady Date: March 15th, 2008 12:32 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: In Defence and Regret of Dr. Dolphin

Thanks for your comments. Pre-Dolphin and even pre-Garden, L. Illis had purported that porphyria could account for the reports of werewolves. Guess vampires draw bigger crowds and more money!

I agree with your last comment. Rabies is another popular "explanation."

Until last year, I had assumed that Dolphin had abandoned this nonsense and gone into hiding to scrape the egg off his face. I could hardly believe it when I saw the notice of his lecture at York University. It was a dreadful night (pouring rain) but wild horses would not have kept me away.
From: (Anonymous) Date: March 17th, 2008 04:06 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: In Defence and Regret of Dr. Dolphin

Can't say I've read Illis' paper, "On Porphyria and the Aetiology of Werewolves" (1964), but I bet the link is just as obscure.

The rabies connection is an interesting one; Juan Gomez-Alonso received a good deal of coverage for it in 1998 (though, again, he doesn't seem to have been the first to link it).

Not that I believe it has as much credence, mind you. He did at least make use of much more relevant sources, however. Here (http://microvet.arizona.edu/Courses/MIC195E/Gomez-Alonso.html)'s a copy of his paper to read yourself.

I was also surprised by Dolphin's perpetuation of the porphyria theory, because I've been in contact with him myself. And he seemed noticeably reluctant to discuss the matter.

This certainly raises an interesting ethical concern...

~ Anthony Hogg
nancyhector From: nancyhector Date: January 15th, 2011 03:23 am (UTC) (Link)

porphyria and dangerous links to vampires

I'm not sure if your last comment ( The question last Friday reminds me that this ludicrous theory still lingers. I am determined to take every opportunity to debunk it. ) is still current. We are a family afflicted with Accute Intermittent Phorphyria, which is COMPLETELY different to the Variegated Porphyria strain. VERY few doctors seem to understand this, and consistently test us for VP and sneer openly when the tests come back negative.
lironess From: lironess Date: October 11th, 2012 02:26 am (UTC) (Link)
I did once see a man in a porphyria documentary who had been miss diagnosed as a teenager and was told to be in the sun as much as possible. The result was horrific damage to his body and face. He lived in a small town and found a wife and they had a family which speaks volumes about his personality but when he was outside he would wear a cover over his face. During the show he took off his head cover which protected his skin and the "sensibilities" of his neighbors and the damage was quite extensive and included the extreme distortion of one side of his face exposing his upper teeth and gums. The rest of his face was also pretty ravaged. At that point I could see a possible source for the myth...this wonderful and beloved man looked like he could have been a living corpse. I can imagine if some poor fool ran into him at night that they would freak out and start all kinds of rumors...The best part of the show IMO though was that his family loved him just as he was and thought of him only as dad and he was completely free in his home to be who he was and they all loved him.

What can I say...people are stupid and often behave in very ignorant manners...
12 comments or Leave a comment