A thirst for blood

How It Works - - SCIENCE -

In times when peo­ple were wary of vam­pires, corpses were oc­ca­sion­ally dug up to check they were still dead. Peo­ple’s fears were ex­ac­er­bated when bod­ies were found to have blood ooz­ing from the nose and mouth. In re­al­ity, what looked like blood was ac­tu­ally ‘purge fluid’, the re­sult of the nat­u­ral de­cay process as the in­ter­nal or­gans start to break down. Symp­toms of dis­ease also con­trib­uted to the blood-suck­ing myth. Tu­ber­cu­lo­sis (TB) is a bac­te­rial in­fec­tion that pri­mar­ily af­fects the lungs and causes suf­fer­ers to cough up blood. Be­fore the ill­ness was un­der­stood peo­ple blamed these mys­te­ri­ous deaths on su­per­nat­u­ral forces. The New Eng­land ‘vam­pire panic’ in the early 1800s, for ex­am­ple, was a TB out­break that af­fected en­tire fam­i­lies. The deaths were blamed on the first vic­tim of the fam­ily some­how feed­ing off their sur­viv­ing rel­a­tives from be­yond the grave. When they ex­humed bod­ies to try and pre­vent what they as­sumed was vam­piric ac­tiv­ity, their wor­ries were (mis­tak­enly) ‘con­firmed’ by the fact that TB vic­tims would of­ten be found with their mouths full of blood.

A symp­tom of TB is cough­ing up blood, which could have con­trib­uted to vam­pires’ blood­thirsty rep­u­ta­tion

Right: Ger­man physi­cian Robert Koch won the 1905 No­bel Prize for dis­cov­er­ing that TB was caused by the My­cobac­terium tu­ber­cu­lo­sis bac­te­ria (pic­tured)

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