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Dracula’s fictional victims could have really been bitten by real-life leukemia

By Elizabeth Rayne
Lucy Westenra from Bram Stoker's Dracula

Even though his iconic Dracula only drains human blood between the pages of a book, when it comes to the symptoms that followed a bite, Bram Stoker may have been onto something.

The 19th century was plagued by unidentified diseases that were often passed off by very un-medical terms such as “consumption”. That accounted for too many premature funerals. Nobody knew what leukemia was back then, which justifies the whole supernatural explanation — but a new study that carefully explored the symptoms of a vampire attack in Gothic Victorian fiction pointed to a paranormal version of leukemia.

A team of researchers set out to dissect the symptoms of vampire victims from three classic horror novels: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, John Wiliam Polidori’s The Vampyre, and J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla. They treated the cases of the doomed Lucy Westenra and others as if they were seeing actual patients. It wasn’t just a matter of deathly pallor and swooning on fainting sofas.

The symptoms are actually much more complex when looked at through a medical lens. After listing the symptoms and the stretch of time they lasted for each character, they came to conclusions only modern medicine could reach.

“The novels were chosen based on their iconic status in classic vampire literature, which defined the vampire genre and the symptoms of the victims for many years,” the research team said in a study recently published in The Irish Journal of Medical Science. “The symptoms and course of disease following vampire attacks described in these novels were then compared with symptoms commonly seen in untreated acute leukemia and other contemporary disorders.”

A possible alternate explanation could be anemia (which was known of in the Victorian world). All that blood loss might have led the research team to a mistaken diagnosis, but anemia is also symptom of leukemia, which starts out in bone marrow and spreads fast to squash white blood cells. The researchers believed Lucy was a textbook case of acute leukemia despite how susceptible her case was to being mistaken for anemia or even tuberculosis. She is even described in the novel as being “bloodless, but not anemic.”

Dracula showed the most symptoms of the novels studied, with three victims who the study described as suffering with “malaise, paleness, fatigue, anorexia, dyspnoea and weight loss," eventually leading to delirium. These symptoms were also rampant in Carmilla, and while they weren’t present to such an extent in The Vampyre, there was still enough to go off of in order to diagnose the fictional patients.

If only the Victorians actually knew this, frequent funerals and months of wearing mourning clothes wouldn’t have been a thing. The only symptom not mentioned? Those telltale bite marks on the neck.

(via LiveScience/The Irish Journal of Medical Science)

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