Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Kathryn Harkup's "Vampirology"

Kathryn Harkup is a chemist and author. She completed a doctorate on her favorite chemicals, phosphines, and went on to further postdoctoral research before realizing that talking, writing and demonstrating science appealed a bit more than hours slaving over a hot fume-hood. She writes and gives regular public talks on the disgusting and dangerous side of science.

Harkup’s first book was the international best-seller A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie, which was shortlisted for a Mystery Readers International Macavity Award and a BMA Book Award. She has also written Making the Monster: The Science of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts.

Harkup applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Vampirology: The Science of Horror's Most Famous Fiend, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Vampirology is all about a genetic condition that affects the blood, some forms of which can make someone extremely sensitive to sunlight. The page describes the cause of the problem, a malfunctioning enzyme that normally helps assemble the heme part of hemoglobin (the all important oxygen-carrying protein in the blood). The result is a build up of heme fragments in the body, which are toxic. These fragments can build up in the teeth to give them a dark brown-red appearance; gums can recede making the teeth look longer, and exposure to sunlight can cause blistering on the skin that heals slowly and can become infected to cause more extensive damage to the tissue. One treatment for the condition is bleeding (phlebotomy), to remove the toxic compounds that have built up in the bloodstream, followed by transfusions of healthy blood to replace the loss. The final paragraph of the page introduces Dr David Dolphin, a chemist who proposed this condition as an explanation for vampires.

This single page of the book might make you think the whole thing is about blood. But, as a vampire's favourite food, it's not that surprising that blood science features quite heavily. In fact the main focus of this chapter is not blood at all, but instead it looks at a vampire's well-known aversion to sunlight and why that might be. However, there is a medical condition with a direct link between blood and sunlight, called porphyria. There are several different forms of porphyria though not all of them cause an extreme reaction to sunlight. The symptoms of one particular form of porphyria have superficial links to characteristics we have come to associate with vampires. Page 99 is focused very much on the science behind this rare blood condition and goes into some detail about it so hopefully the reader will understand why the association was made, but also why it is not a very good theory.

In one respect page 99 is not very representative of the whole book. My overall aim for Vampirology was to look at as many aspects of vampires as possible, such as folk stories of 'real' vampires, as well as films and books representing fictional vampires, to history and scientific explanations of vampire characteristics. However, this single page does represent the way I have tried to examine vampire characteristics and vampire tales. It sets out the facts behind one theory of vampirism and explores how well it matches the traits of vampires from history and fiction to reach the conclusion that it is not a very good theory at all. People with porphyria are people with porphyria, and vampires are vampires. Vampirology is not an encyclopedia of vampires and it doesn't aim to prove whether vampires exist or ever have - that's up to the reader - but it does try to find out if vampires could exist.
Visit Kathryn Harkup's website.

The Page 99 Test: Death By Shakespeare.

--Marshal Zeringue