Tuesday 25th March, 2008


David E Bratt, MD

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Of vampires and corn

  • Corn arrives in Europe in 1492.
  • Staple peasant food within a century.
  • Outbreaks of pellagra soon follow.
  • Pellagra and vampirism share common manifestations.

After Columbus arrived in the Caribbean in 1492, among the many things he took back to Spain was corn, where it soon supplanted wheat and rye among the poor because of its high caloric yield per acre. It then spread to northern Italy, where boiled cornmeal or polenta became the peasant’s staple meal.

Polenta is still a common food in many countries and is known by various names. In South Africa, cornmeal mush is eaten as mealie pap. In West Africa it’s called fufu. In Barbados, cou-cou. In Curacao, funchi. Corn grits in the southern USA is somewhat similar.

Venezuelans eat cornmeal as part of their Christmas meal, hallacas or huge pastelles, as well as for their traditional breakfast, arepas, made from white corn filled with various ingredients from grated cheese to shredded meat to black beans, and enjoyed by generations of young men after a night out.

It was in poverty-stricken eastern Europe where corn became the main source of energy for poor people. Cornmeal or onions or lard with a swig of schnapps or rakija or slivovitz (plum brandy) was what you ate on a daily basis. The corn is known as polenta in sweet Croatia and imperial Austria, palenta in troubled Serbia, kachamak in unknown Bulgaria, and mamaliga in Draculinean Rumania.

Therein lies a story.

Wherever it was introduced a strange disease, called pellagra, soon arose. Pellagra is a vitamin deficiency disease caused by dietary lack of niacin (B3) and proteins containing the essential amino acid tryptophan. Pellagra is another word derived from the Italian “pelle agra” (pelle = skin; agra = rough). Medical students remember it as the four “Ds”: dermatitis, diarrhoea, dementia, and death. It kills within four to five years if left untreated.

In modern societies, a majority of patients with clinical pellagra are poor, homeless, alcohol-dependent, or psychiatric patients who refuse food. But in Europe for centuries after it was first introduced, it was responsible for epidemics of slow, lingering, horrible deaths and no one knew what to do until American scientists established the cause just before World War I.

It turns out that maize lacks readily accessible niacin or tryptophan unless cooked with alkali, a process which natives of America had worked out over the ages. They had learned to add either ashes or lime to the cornmeal to liberate vitamin B3 or they added beans to the corn (tamales) because beans contain niacin.

It was a fairly typical example of foreigners coming into a culture and copying something they like without fully understanding the cultural or, in this case, the medical implications.

Stories of vampires have their origin in the folklore of eastern Europe countries beginning in the early 1700s. It is now thought that there is a relationship between these stories and pellagra.

If one examines the four major characteristics of pellagra, one finds a close association between three of them and the vampire belief.

Victims of pellagra are nocturnal because their skin is hypersensitive to sunlight. With repeated episodes of dermatitis, their skin becomes pale, paper-thin and parchment-like, yet their tongues remain inflamed: smooth and red. Because of the dermatitis, their lips are often red and cracked.

In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the vampire is described as a man “of extraordinary pallor...without a speck of colour in him...yet with a ‘bloated face’ and ‘red, voluptuous lips.’”

The symptoms of dementia are insomnia, unjustified aggression and desire to fight, alternating with periods of depression when the person hides himself away from society.

These symptoms are characteristic of the folkloric vampire who does not sleep at night, shuns normal society and is moody and irritable.

Pellagra is a slow, progressive, wasting disease, frightful to friends and family who have no idea what causes it. Typically, it affects close relatives of the initial case, since they share similar diets.

Vampire folklore holds that those who die of the bite of a vampire leave behind enemies or loved ones with whom they have unfinished business or strong emotional connections. They leave their graves to seek vengeance or to be reunited with their loved ones in eternal bloodsucking life.

The fourth D, diarrhoea, has never been described as an aspect of the vampire myth. However, body functions were normally not spoken of in past centuries and may not have entered the myth for this reason. Certainly, refusal of food (vampires supposedly survive by drinking blood), anorexia and weight loss are common among people with pellagra, as were poor hygiene and sanitation, leading to worm infestation, reflective of the vampire’s legendary association with vermin.

There are other significant associations between corn and vampires. The word “vampire” first entered the English language in 1734, the year before pellagra was first described by a Spanish physician as a “disgusting disease of peasants.” Pellagra was known as the “springtime disease,” when new crops were not yet ready and the use of cornmeal increased.

According to tradition, St George’s Day in late April or early May was the day on which vampires would gather at the edge of a village to plan their attacks on villagers.

And, as we all know, the two telltale signs of an exhumed vampire are “a red face marked with fresh blood” and “a ring of cornmeal around the mouth of the deceased.”

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