Franck and Emilie Dayan wrote about porphyrins (Porphyrins:One Ring in the Colors of Life) in the American Scientist (May-June,Vol. 29) in which they brought together science and myth to explain the existence of Vampires. They even referenced a “vampire plant” so named by Crispin Taylor of the American Society of Plant Biologists because it has a phenotype similar to photosensitive patients afflicted with porphyria. They shed light on the legend of Dracula when they described Vlad III, born in 1431, the Prince of Wallachia, who was Knight of the Order of the Dragon (a Hungarian religious order organized to protect the interests of Catholicism and the Holy Roman Empire) as a very authoritarian ruler known for his cruelty to his foes. He chose Easter Sunday, 1459, to arrest and impale many of his nobles who had rebelled and killed his father and his brother. The Dayan’s note that his preferred method of punishment earned him the nickname, Tepes, which means the impaler. His methods of torture included skinning, decapitation, hacking, strangulation, hanging, boiling, and burning. Noses, ears and sexual organs were cut off. 20,000 to 40,000 European civilians were killed, most of whom were impaled. Tepes created a “Forest of the Impaled” described by Sultan Mehmed who, in 1462, encountered 20,000 rotting cadavers of Turkish captives when he entered the capital of Wallachia. While not known for drinking the blood of his enemies, his thirst for vengeance served as a model for the villain, Dracula. The Dayan’s pointed out that while most cultures describe mythical creatures that feed on the blood of the living, it wasn’t until Bram Stoker, an Irish writer, was introduced to Vlad Tepes in 1890 by professor Armin Vambery, that the term vampire became popular. Remember that Tepes was a Knight of the Order of the Dragon and “Dragon” is pronounced “Dracul” in Romanian and Dracula means son of Dracul.
What does this have to do with porphyria? Porphyrin is a molecule that binds to metal ions which have many different biological functions that are necessary to sustain essential activities in all organisms. Genetically based increases in porphyrin in places of the body in which they shouldn’t be, can cause light-dependent swelling and itching of the skin, mental disorders that can include muscle numbness, pain, and vomiting. While the Dayans make it clear that there is no evidence that Tepes suffered from porphyria, they do assert that David Dolphin, a prolific Canadian chemist who wrote seven volumes on porphyrins, identified that porphyria victims suffer from sensitivity to light as well as withered fingers and lips and “gums may tighten to reveal fanglike teeth with reddish hues due to elevated porphyrin levels.” (Dolphin, 12978-1979). The Dayans properly asserted that, “it is important to remember that patients afflicted with porphyria are by no means vampires…No one suffering from porphyria deserves a rendezvous with Buffy the vampire slayer.” We agree.
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Dayan, Franck E.. and Dayan, Emilie A., Porphyrins: One Ring in the Colors of Life, American Scientist, May-June 2011, Vol.99, (3),p.236
Dolphin, D. (1978-1979), The Prophyrins. Volumes 1-7. New York, Academic Press
Dolphin, D. (1985) Werewolves and vampires, Annual Meeting of American Assoication for the Advancement of Sciences
Poblete-Gutierrez, P., Wiederholt, H.F., Merk and J. Frank, (2006). The prophyrins:clinical presentation, diagnosis and treatment. European Journal of Dermatology, 16(230).
Taylor, C.B., (1998), Vampire Plants? Plant Cell, 10(1071.