Dr. David Dolphin’s Vampire Theory

Ever wonder how vampire legends were born, or why vampire hysteria in the Middle Ages reached the level it did? Well you aren’t alone; those questions also crossed the mind of Dr. David Dolphin, who was a chemistry professor at the University of British Columbia.

In 1985 Dr. Dolphin presented a theory that the victims of the disease porphyria during the Middle Ages may have been responsible for the spread of the vampire legend and hysteria. At the time, thousands upon thousands of people lived in fear of vampires, and just as many innocents were executed for being vampires. Countless corpses were dug up and staked, chopped up, burned and more. Dolphin argued that those that suffered porphyria may have caused this.

The symptoms of porphyria may make a person appear undead. They have serious photosensitivity, aversion to garlic, hairiness, and elongated teeth – just like the vampires in the myths we all know so well now. These people that had the disease supposedly took to drinking blood in the desperate effort to alleviate their pain. You see, blood introduced the required element into their body, heme.

The press covered Dr. Dolphin’s theory, but most headlines mocked or criticized him. The hypothesis also caused quite the stir in the medical field as well, they would either point out all the flaws in the theory or they took to complaining about the negative publicity generated. Others simply didn’t like the mixing of science with traditions and legends.

Considering that people back in the Middle Ages didn’t often use science as an explanation for events, but rather religion and superstition, this theory could very well hold true. But porphyria isn’t the only culprit here, there are others as well, like rabies.

What do you think, do you agree with Dr. David Dolphin’s porphyria theory? Or do you think that the vampire legends really did come from real vampires?

– Moonlight

By Moonlight

Moonlight (aka Amanda) loves to write about, read about and learn about everything pertaining to vampires. You will most likely find her huddled over a book of vampire folklore with coffee in hand. Touch her coffee and she may bite you (and not in the fun way).


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  2. I agree with sceptics.
    1. People suffering from porphyria don´t drink blood.
    2. In folklore (and classic literature like Dracula and Carmilla) vampires walked happily in sunlight – they were NOT photosensitive. It was 1922 Nosferatu which added vampires-burn-in-the-sun-nonsense.
    3. Vampires of Middle and Eastern European folklore were red and often fat (not rotten or disfigured monsters, BTW, like sometimes is claimed – they looked like ordinary humans). According to Paul Barber, red skin of the vampire bodies, exposed under dead skin, was dermis, they were swollen by gas and blood dripping from their mouths was also caused by decomposing process.

    1. That’s only some myths. Keep in mind that every country had their own, the red skin and sunlight was only in a few countries, not all. :)

      1. Is there any photosensitive vampires in folklore, like Dolphin claims? And porphyria victims do not drink blood! I´m sorry if I sounded snappy, and I am not folklorist or anything, but Dolphin clearly does not know what he is speaking! p

        1. Some scholars believe that at the time some porphyria victims tried to drink blood in a way to alleviate the pain and to balance out their body since blood has heme in it. Medicine was incredibly barbaric back then and doctors experimented with all sorts of methods for healing someone – from bloodletting, to disgusting concoctions, and possibly blood drinking.

          As for vampires in folklore that couldn’t go into the sun – there is the soucouyant, who would actually be destroyed by the sunlight. And while few folktales tell of vampires being destroyed by the sun, there are many versions of one story and in some vampires can’t go into the sunlight. Like the Greek vrykolakas, every part of Greece had their own stories about this vampire, and while most said it could go out into the sun, other believed that it couldn’t. The stories vary from area to area.

          1. But MOST vampires in European folklore fit into category I mentioned earlier. There is blood-sucking monsters around the world, but was Dolphin speaking about them? No. He is clearly speaking of pale-faced, sun-fearing vampires of modern lore. We must to agree to disagree. I think his theory is rightly dismissed as rubbish – for the reasons above – while you think it is worth to ponder. Shrug.

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  5. Sorry to prove the above mentioned theory wrong, but people with Porphyria do not walk undead (because when people die, their heart stops pumping blood and all their organs start decaying.) Bacterias feed on the blood or certain parts of humans, and when the blood circulation stops, those bacterias do not get their food, thus they gradually leave the dead body. Secondly the disease does not cause people to become photosensitive or get burned in the sunlight. Lastly, the definition of the disease is: a genetic abnormality of metabolism causing abdominal pains and mental confusion. Thus Porphyria might cause people to become schizophrenic (at it’s minor level), or cause people to cough out blood. But it does not make people crave for blood! Therefore, it is quite possible that the people with the disease were seen coughing out blood or blood dripping from their mouth, and the others thought that they drink blood.

  6. The theory has it`s flaws, but everyone should know that there are 8 forms of porphyrias, and of course not all of them requires to drink blood for the pain relief, they all are diffrent.
    But Variegate porphyria and herediatary porphyria has acute attacs with severe pain ( patients say it`s like someone has put a hot iron on their guts) and one of the treatment options are heme infusions( a compound of hemoglobin) and these persons have photosensitive skin blisters and erosions.
    Of course they don`t walk undead, but lets keep in mind that people in Middle ages may have had a good fantasy and folklore as we know evolves from story telling form one person to another.

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