June 13 marks International Albinism Awareness Day.
This is an initiative driven by the United Nations, whose reports into discrimination against people with this genetic condition highlighted “how interrelated factors, including the mythologization of albinism and a related lack of understanding of the scientific bases of the condition, poverty, witchcraft practices and other aggravating factors, such as visibility and appearance, all contribute to ongoing outbreaks of attacks and discrimination against persons with albinism” (UN Resolution A/71/255, July 2016, p.3). Violence against people with albinism, especially in Malawi and Mozambique, was also highlighted in a 2016 report by Amnesty International.
As part of their campaign today, and speaking to the myths surrounding albinism, the UN hashtag for the event is #NotGhosts. In Britain, the Albinism Fellowship is a sociable, volunteer-run organisation that aims to provide information, advice and support for people with albinism and their families. They are also hosting a range of activities today.
The term ‘albinism’ dates to the early nineteenth century, with ‘albino’ taken from Spanish an hundred years earlier (OED; White, p.14). In this period, the most prominent cases in European accounts were individuals found in communities of people with dark skin, and especially those with partial albinism, which at the time was often described as ‘piebaldism’. A portrait of Mary Sabina still hangs in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London (image below). Mary was born to black African slaves on a Jesuit plantation in Cartegena, South America, on 12 October 1736. A local priest adhered to widespread beliefs in the power of the maternal imagination to impact upon a foetus in suggesting that Mary’s skin variation was caused by her mother looking at a spotted dog while she was pregnant. Although Mary never traveled to Europe, multiple versions of her portrait did, and her image became well known.
Mary Sabina, from the collection of the Hunterian Museum
“albino, n. and adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2017. Web. 13 June 2017.
Amnesty International, ‘We Are Not Animals to be Hunted or Sold’: Violence and Discrimination Against People with Albinism in Malawi’. June 2016. Available online.
Emily Cock, ‘He would by no means risque his Reputation: patient and doctor shame in Daniel Turner’s De Morbis Cutaneis (1714) and Syphilis (1717)’, Medical Humanities (January 2017) doi:10.1136/medhum-2016-01105. Available online.
Jessie Dobson, ‘Mary Sabina, The Variegated Damsel’, Annals of The Royal College of Surgeons of England 22.4 (1958): 273–278. Available online.
Hunterian Museum, ‘Mary Sabina Exhibition Panel’, accessed online 13 June 2017.
Ibid. ‘Portrait of Mary Sabina, unsigned, 18th century’, accessed online 13 June 2017.
United Nations, Report of the Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism: a preliminary survey on the root causes of attacks and discrimination against persons with albinism. July 2016, resolution A/71/255. Available online.
Thomas White, ‘Their Whiteness is Not Like Ours’: A Social and Cultural History of Albinism and Albino Identities, 1650-1914. PhD Thesis, University of Manchester (2011). Available online.