A Brief History of the Vampire

By Audrey Sage Lorberfeld, Digital Technical Specialist

Most people associate vampires with Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula; however, the vampire has much older roots than that. Robert McCully reports that “the earliest known depiction of a vampire appears on a prehistoric Assyrian bowl…”[1] Much later came the vampiric texts with which we in the West are familiar, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Christobel (1797), Marquis de Sade’s Justine (1791), and John Keats’s Lamia (1819).[2] Finally, in 1897, comes Stoker’s Dracula.


Chapter heading illustration, from Paul Barber’s Vampires Burial and Death: Folklore and Reality, 1988.

Perhaps the easiest place to start a history of the vampire is the differentiation between the folkloric vampire and the fictional vampire.

The Folkloric Vampire

Paul Barber warns that “if a typical vampire of folklore…were to come to your house this Halloween, you might open the door to encounter a plump Slavic fellow with long fingernails and a stubby beard, his mouth and left eye open, his face ruddy and swollen… [his] nose fallen in somewhat, the hair, beard, and nails grown, and new skin formed under the old” (a lovely phenomenon called ‘skin slippage’).[3] Other telltale signs of folkloric vamps are that people usually kill them with stakes (the act of which causes them to bleed and emanate ‘painful’ sounds); they like to attack cattle; they can regenerate;[4] and they bite.[5]

Regarding the origins of the folkloric vamp, Barber puts forth a forensic and socio-political argument. In short, Barber thinks that the idea of the folkloric vampire arose from the exhumation of decomposing bodies. These bodies normally have a little blood at their mouths, they get bloated, they smell, and they bleed when cut.[6] Barber believes that these bodies were likely scapegoats for society’s fears of plague or murder victims, whose bodies were buried in shallow graves (meaning that they decomposed faster).[7] When these ‘vampires’ were exhumed for inspection (which happened when a corpse was accused of being a vampire) and were ‘killed’ with stakes, it would be normal for a decomposing body to lack rigor mortis and also let out a painful sound, like the one mentioned previously. In reality, this sound is just the bloated body expelling methane.[8]

The Fictional Vampire

The fictional vamp, on the other hand, is the pop culture phenomenon. These vampires are “power mad” and want “nothing less than to take over the world, with the aid of an army of subordinate vampires.”[9]

This fictional vamp is the creature to which the real-life disease porphyria can be (dubiously) linked. Porphyria is a term given to multiple diseases that involve “enzyme defects in the haem biosynthetic pathway.”[10] Coming from the Greek word πορφύρα (pronounced “por-FOO-ra”), meaning purple, porphyria sufferers usually have red- or purple-tinged urine. This discoloration is caused by an excess of porphyrins.[11] Porphyrins are “light-activated chemicals that can be used to combat ills including tumors and diseases of the eye.”[12] Porphyria is also the disease many think plagued King George III.[13]

The specific type of porphyria most link to vampires is congenital erythropoietic porphyria (CEP), otherwise known as Gunther’s Disease.[14] Roderick McEwin writes that “this extremely rare disease presents on first exposure to light . . . blistering [the] exposed skin,” and that the urine, teeth, and bones, all stained pink, fluoresce in ultraviolet light.[15] These symptoms would explain why we usually associate vampires with burning in the sun.

Regarding the blood-sucking behavior of typical (fictional) vampires, Lane writes that it is possible early scientists linked vampires to porphyria patients because, in principle, it is possible to relieve the symptoms of porphyria by drinking blood. Not all scholars buy this argument, however. Maranda et al argue that there is no “scientific explanation for why people with porphyria would benefit from drinking blood” and that true porphyria patients suffer from scarring, which does not complement the world’s perception of (fictional) vampires.[16]

Another belief is that vampires arose from real people getting rabies. Juan Gómez-Alonso writes about how rabies sometimes presents in spasms and the emission of hoarse sounds that together make someone’s teeth clench and lips retract like those of an animal. The spasms are “generally triggered by some stimuli,” which include light (“photophobia”). Rabies might also explain vampires’ relationships to mirrors. Gómez-Alonso tells us that “a man was not considered rabid if he was able to stand the sight of his own image in a mirror.”[17]

There is almost too much that could be said about the vampire’s history. The vampire has been around for a long time, and continues to be a source of fascination. In fact, the next time you are on the 6 train, just look up and check out the ad for Casper® mattresses.


Casper® ad on the number 6 subway line in New York City, photograph by author, 2017.

Further Reading:

[1] McCully, Robert. “Vampirism: Historical Perspective and Underlying Process in Relation to a Case of Auto-Vampirism.” Vampires, Werewolves, and Demons: Twentieth Century Reports in the Psychiatric Literature, edited by Richard Noll, New York: Brunner/Mazel; 1992: p. 38.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Barber, Paul. Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality. New Haven: Yale University Press; 1988: 2-13.
[4] Ibid., 19.
[5] Ibid., 32.
[6] Ibid., 121.
[7] Ibid., 124-5.
[8] Ibid., 158.
[9] McCully, 83.
[10] Youngs, Giles R., ed. Dobson’s Complaint: The Story of the Chester Porphyria. London: Royal College of Physicians of London; 1998: 1.
[11] McEwin, Roderick. Porphyria in Australia: A Review of the Literature, and the Australian Experience. Sydney: Health Commission of New South Wales; 1975: 6.
[12] Lane, Nick. “Born to the Purple: The Story of Porphyria.” Scientific American. December 16, 2002.
[13] Youngs, 11.
[14] McEwin, 43.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Maranda, Eric Laurent et al. “Porphyria and Vampirism-A Myth, Sensationalized.” JAMA dermatology 152.9 (2016): 975.
[17] Gómez-Alonso, J. “Rabies: A Possible Explanation for the Vampire Legend.” Neurology 51.3 (1998): 856–859.

College Student Reflects on Recent Academy Lecture

Today’s guest post is by Eliana Lanfranco, who is a rising sophomore studying at Georgetown University. She is majoring in medical anthropology and hopes to pursue a career in medicine in the future with the aim of returning to her home country to open a clinic. Eliana attended the Academy lecture with Project Rousseau, a non-profit organization, whose mission is to empower youth in communities with the greatest need to reach their full potential and pursue higher education. Project Rousseau takes a holistic approach to students’ educational problems delivering a variety of programs and strongly believes in the importance of exposing students to as many new experiences as possible, such as attending lectures at the New York Academy of Medicine!


Eliana Lanfranco (center) with Project Rousseau Founder and President, Andrew Heinrich, and two younger Project Rousseau students.

On May 11, I attended “Facades and Fashions in Medical Architecture” at the New York Academy of Medicine.  This was my first time attending a lecture outside of my college classes, and I left with a different perspective on what lectures have to offer. The lecture did not contain slides filled with information I was required to know for a course, but rather an interactive, engaging talk filled with information I wanted to know. Through it, I learned about a new side of the history of medicine that I had never thought about before.

The lecture began with an overview of dispensaries, which were used primarily by the lower income groups in NYC (the wealthy had their own private doctors) in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Many of the volunteers in these dispensaries were doctors from affluent backgrounds who had recently graduated and wanted to gain clinical experience to become established doctors. Later, when hospitals began to serve both the poor and rich, recent graduates preferred the hospitals over the dispensaries, since the former had the latest equipment, such as x-rays and anesthesia, which the doctors could learn about and use.  It is interesting to see how this trend has, to some extent, remained among medical students today, and which medical institutions attract which students. Today, it may be easier to find a volunteer spot in community clinics than in hospitals, and medical students can oftentimes be more exposed to the health issues that affect certain communities who use these facilities.

The lecture also highlighted the way in which hospitals were built to be relatable to the patients and how their architecture reflected medical beliefs at the time. Older hospitals were built with long, narrow wings, as it was believed that the flow of air and light eliminated germs. Their architecture also tried to be welcoming and non-imposing to people walking past them; for example, mental health institutes were built to have a countryside feeling instead of looking like enclosed plots of land. Later, many of the hospitals built during the New Deal time period also featured murals painted by local artists in their waiting rooms. These murals were sometimes twofold, as they featured “controlled medicine” or modern medicine, and “uncontrolled medicine” or folk forms of healing. They portrayed historical figures in medicine, such as Louis Pasteur, and minorities in the field of medicine. As a patient, I would have been thankful for these murals since they offer some distraction from the endless wait in the waiting room.

In contrast, modern hospitals have been built in big clusters, along with skyscrapers. Their rectangular shape makes them reliant on mechanical ventilation, and their towering height makes them overpowering to people walking by. However, many try to maintain their air of welcome by making the entrances wide to show that it is not an institution for a select few. I think that these small details are very important because even though the majority of patients may not consciously think about the architecture they’re entering, these features greatly affect how patients, especially those who are not used to having structured medical systems in their home countries, feel about entering the hospital. I lived in a rural part of the Dominican Republic and the tallest hospital I saw growing up was four floors high. When I moved to New York City, I was surprised at the height of the hospitals and, although I am no longer a child, I am often intimidated by the buildings. It is good to see that some hospitals have incorporated details into their architecture to retain the air of welcome for patients, although as I, and many others, still quiver as we enter hospitals, I wonder how successful this approach has truly been!

Prior to this lecture, I was unaware that so many buildings I walked by every day, and that just looked like apartments with no historical importance, were actually hospitals and medical institutions.  Although older medical institutions can give us an insight into older medical beliefs and practices when carefully inspected  and can help us shape future medical practices, many of the older medical institutions have survived only through repurposing to other uses, such as apartments or firehouses; few have maintained their original purpose. It would be great to see the older hospitals that have survived, continue their original purpose or become museums so that their medical history can be saved, as has been the case with some buildings in nearby Philadelphia and Boston. As a pre-med student, the thought of attending an architecture lecture was, at first glance a little strange, but now I realize how related medicine and architecture are. A doctor’s primary aim is to treat all those in need, but without the right architectural design many patients may be hesitant to enter towering, intimidating hospitals!

Summer & Fall 2017 Catalog of Events

By Emily Miranker, Events and Projects Manager

Welcome to The New York Academy of Medicine Library’s Summer & Fall 2017 cultural programming.

For the third year running, we are partnering with our neighbor The Museum of the City of New York for a three-part series: “Who Controls Women’s Health?: A Century of Struggle.” Marking the centennial of New York State suffrage law, Century of Struggle is a free, three-part talk series that examines key battles over women’s ability to control their bodies, health choices, and fertility. The series reflects the Academy’s long history of involvement with improving maternal and infant mortality, and complements the forthcoming exhibition at MCNY Beyond Suffrage: 100 Years of Women and Politics in New York.

“Who Controls Women’s Health?: A Century of Struggle” speakers Randi Epstein, Faye Wattleton, and Jennifer Nelson.

Next in our special series, “Legacies of War: Medical Innovations and Impacts”—how the experience of war prompts medical innovation—we welcome Professor Beth Linker on September 28 to speak on World War One and veteran care, and Professor John Kinder on October 17 to explore the history of American war through the bodies of five veterans.


Cover of Pictorial Review (Feb 1919).

Starting in mid-September, Kriota Willberg will lead an Embroidering Medicine Workshop. This workshop is the culmination of a six-month artist residency –the first ever such at the Academy Library- dedicated to the intersections between body sciences and artistic practices. The workshop explores the relationship between medicine, needlework and gender. Willberg focuses on the areas of the collection invoking the ideals of femininity and domesticity, as well as needlework (in the form of ligatures, sutures, and stitching of the body.)


John Bell, The Principles of Surgery (1801).

Our collaboration with Atlas Obscura continues this year with topics like Anatomical Illustrations, Astronomy and Astrology, Cookery, and Women’s Medicine. The intimate sessions in our beautiful Drs. Barry and Bobbi Coller Rare Book Room offer a chance to be enlightened by early alchemists, philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, physicians, and midwives. You’ll leave with the wisdom that they penned, including the ancient secrets of how to turn metal into gold, what fruit to eat to delay labor, and how the Zodiac Man guided medical practices.


Joannes de Ketham, Fasciculo de Medicina (1522).

Later in the fall, socio-medical scientist Ijeoma Kola of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health presents “Unable to Breathe” on November 14. As asthma hospitalization rates skyrocketed, researchers shifted their focus from psychosomatic explanations to the toxicity of black urban locales. This talk explores how emerging asthma research in the 1950s and 1960s bolstered broader African American struggles for equity.

Download the Summer/Fall Catalog for more details. To register, click the names of events in the catalog, or visit www.NYAM.org/events. You can keep up to date on our events and activities by following us on social media, @nyamhistory.

We look forward to seeing you throughout the second half of this year.

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