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Albinism, derived from the Latin albus, meaning white, is the name given to a congenital absence of colouring in members of a race which is normally pig mented. Such individuals are called albinos. Though somewhat rare in England, albinism occurs among all the races of mankind, and is widely distributed throughout the animal and vegetable kingdoms.
Among mankind the albino is instantly recognized by his white hair, rough white skin, and pink eyes. Defective teeth, deafness, and nervous instability may also be present, but some albinos are strong and capable men. The pink colour of the eye is due to its deep blood vessels being visible, and all albinos suffer from excess of light reaching the retina. This is shown by dropping of the eyelids, frequent blinking and tremulous movements of the eyeball. The power of vision is usually defective, but in dim lights the albino can see better than a normal person. The skin is liable to blister if exposed to sunlight for a long period. Its pearly whiteness is not due to colouring matter, but is caused by the reflection of light from minute particles and plates.
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Scientific investigation has demonstrated that the body colour of animals is due to the action of a ferment on a colorless"chromogen" which is normally produced from protein by the activity of the nervous and digestive systems. The action results in the conversion of chromogen into a pigment known as melanin. The colour of melanin ranges from buff through the browns and reds to black. The original cause of albinism usually is the absence of this ferment.
Nobody knows why this lack of ferment occurs, but the defect, once established, is hereditary in the manner known as Mendelian, the absence of colour being a recessive character. Thus, should an albino man marry an albino woman, since neither carries the factor necessary for coloration, all their children will show albinism. On the other hand, should an albino marry a partner who is of normal hue, and whose ancestry is normal, then none of their children will be albino. A third possibility exits owing to the coloration factor being dominant to lack of colour. An apparently normal person may carry an inherited tendency to albinism. Should two such individuals marry, their offspring will, on an average, consist of normal and albino in the proportion of 3: 1. No curative treatment for albinism has been discovered. Variations of food and environment are without effect.
Various types of albino animals are known, and these are specially common among the domesticated species. Of great scientific interest is the tendency for sundry characteristics to be associated with albinism. Thus long hair and swaying head movements always accompany the albino character of Angora rabbits; the albino pigs of Virginia are more susceptible to poisoning by certain plants than pigmented pigs of the same litter; and the waltzing movements of white mice tend to be linked with albinism. White rabbits show no lack of vigour compared with coloured specimens, but the white horse is unduly subject to disease; the original white elephant was probably a weakly albino.
Partial albinism is not uncommon, and this also is transmitted by heredity. In these cases a part only of the body is lacking in colour. Certain positions are peculiarly liable to be affected.
Albinism in a Basuto boy in Africa.