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Albino dondo (Spanish), blafard (French), and Kakerlak (a derisive Dutch word that also means ‘cockroach’) are all terms used for human beings who have a total or partial lack of the pigment melanin in the skin, hair, and eyes as well as in some internal sites. It is an incurable congenital condition, due in its total form to absence of the enzyme tyrosinase, which is required for melanin to be synthesized in specialized cells — the melanocytes. Failure of transfer of pigment from melanocytes to its normal destinations accounts for less severe albinism.

The skin of such individuals is usually pale pink or milky white. The hair (including body hair, beard, eyebrows, and eyelashes) is extremely fine and silky, and yellowish-white, substantially different from the snow-white associated with old age. The eyes have a dull, despondent look; the irises are pale grey or pink; the pupils appear bright red, because light falls on the blood vessels of the retina (normally concealed by pigment) in the depth of the eyes. Since a lack of pigment leaves albinos defenseless against both ultraviolet rays and light, they are subject to severe photophobia and heliophobia (fear of light and the sun) from birth on. Like ‘spears’ the sun would ‘fling his flaring beams’, the poet John Milton — who some have suggested suffered from albinism — declared, and cried in torment: ‘How I hate thy beams!’ And indeed bright daylight hurts the eyes of an albino, for without pigment the iris is translucent so that light penetrates it as well as entering the pupil, flooding the retina with unbearable brightness. Albinos regularly turn their heads to the side and roll their eyes in a circular motion in an attempt to find a favourable axis of sight; they suffer from rapid nystagmus (an oscillatory motion of the eyeball), and blink constantly. Light becomes tolerable only with the onset of twilight, when smaller quantities penetrate the iris, so that vision is more or less normalized. Albinos feel especially good — or so it would appear — and can see best on starlit nights and by the light of the moon, which is probably the reason why the native peoples in Central America called them ‘moon eyes’ or ‘children of the moon’. These problems are associated with defective binocular vision and a comparable difficulty in locating sounds, due to abnormally-arranged nerve pathways from the eyes and inner ears to the brain. Whilst the lack of pigment protection for the eyes is the greatest discomfort, it is the unprotected skin which is the greatest hazard, because of the high risk of skin cancer as well as of minor irritation. The claim occasionally advanced that albinism is linked with a lack of intelligence cannot be proved, whereas psychological problems resulting from difficulties of living with a lack of melanin may very well be common.

Despite a few early references, for example by the Roman naturalist Pliny (23-79 ce), until the end of the seventeenth century albinos in Europe were generally regarded as belonging to no special category, but were taken simply as extremely blond and pale people who were strangely shy of light. Only in connection with the fierce debate about the nature and origin of human skin colour, which arose against the background of European colonization and the transatlantic slave trade, were ‘albinos’ (a word taken from the Portuguese) ‘discovered’, so to speak, and for the next 150 years they were the object of an attention that went far beyond any medical interest. An albino displayed in Paris in 1744 at an exhibition célèbre cast such a spell over the public that even Voltaire wrote an extensive description of the case. In England two ‘piebald niggers’ (Nègres mouchetés, Elsterneger) — black men who suffered from ‘partial albinism’ (vitiligo or leukoderma) — became a great sensation: George Alexander Gratton, a little boy exhibited at the Bartholomew Fair in London, ‘was covered with a diversity of [white] spots’; the other, John Richardson Primrose Bobey, born in Jamaica in 1744, was presented as a ‘white-spotted Negro’. The reason for such extraordinary interest lay in the fact that albinos could be brought forward as an excellent piece of evidence for both proving and disproving the most important theories about the origin and nature of skin colour.

Abbé Demanet (died c.1786), a scholar who had travelled in Africa, and the natural scientist Comte de Buffon (1707-88), declared that albinos were most common among ‘coloured’ peoples in Earth's humid and hot equatorial zones: on various islands in the Pacific, among the Papuans of New Guinea, on Ambon, on Nias west of Sumatra, and in Biafra and Luanda, as well as among American aborigines on the isthmus of Panama. They concluded therefore that the skin colour of all human beings must originally have been ‘white’, but that under extreme conditions some individuals then experienced an ‘accidental’ (and later inheritable) ‘degenerative colouration’. To be sure, they could not explain why, for example, the sun which had burned one person black did not do so with others who lived in the same environment. The surgeon Claude-Nicolas Le Cat (1700-68) from Rouen therefore considered albinos as a previously unrecognized and unique ‘species’ of human being, whose existence ‘was due neither to the climate, nor the sun, nor a mixture [of other races]’, as he wrote in his Treatise on the Color of the Human Skin in General, and on that of Negroes in Particular, and of the Metamorphosis of the one Color into the Other, Whether by Birth or by Accident. Voltaire even considered whether the albino might not be the missing link between man and beast so eagerly sought by the natural philosophers of the period; and working from that premise the author of the article Nègres in Diderot's Encyclopédie posed the question of whether ‘white Negroes’ (Leucaethiopes) might not be the progeny of white women and orangutans. It is no wonder, then, that in his Systema naturae Carl von Linné (1707-78) ultimately saw the albino, whom he called Homo nocturnus, as closely related to the Troglodytes, the Forest Man (Homo sylvestris), and the Orangutan.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Mendelian genetics, at least for the most part, put a halt to such learned racial discrimination by defining albinism as a genetic defect that results in a mutation: the permanent, inheritable, and pathological alteration of a healthy organism. Thereafter only the National Socialists and their scientific henchmen (race theoreticians like Erwin Baur, Eugen Fischer, and Fritz Lenz) kept alive the traditional view of albinos as ‘half-animal’ and ‘subhuman’. Nazi ideology welcomed the fact that as far back as the age of Milton albinos were maligned as ‘effeminate’ (in much the same way as homosexuals) on the basis of their weak constitutions and the colour of their skin — and that even the poet himself had been mocked by his fellow students at Cambridge as ‘The Lady of Christ's College’. It may be thanks solely to the Allied victory over Germany that albinos did not ulti-mately fall victim to the Nazi programmes of euthanasia.

— Peter Martin


  • Pearson, K., Nettleship, E. and Usher, C. H. (1911-13). A monograph of Albinism in Man, (3 vols). Draper's Company Research Memoirs, London.
  • Sarasin, F. (1936). Die Anschauungen der Völker über den Albinismus. Schweizerisches Archiv für Volkskunde, 34, 198-233

See also eyes; pigmentation; skin colour.

1 comments: to “ Albino

  • Kaesmann
    9:28 PM  


    there is MUCH MORE to be said on albinism, and many people with albinism will not agree with your text excerpts.

    For morge informations on albinism and on the folks getting along with albinism see:

    Prof.Dr. Barbara Käsmann
    Medical Advisor to NOAH Germany - the German Support and Interest Group for persons with albinism

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