From  Natural History, July 1990

The article, Land of Milk and Poison by David Cameron Duff starts by mentioning that Nancy Hanks, the mother of President Abraham Lincoln, died of a malady that struck many on the frontier. It usually began with a white coating of the tongue and then the tongue turned brown. The feet and hands grew colder and colder and the pulse was slower and slower. This sickness became known as "Milk Sick" or "Milk Sickness".

Early settlers recognized that the sickness occurred in areas where cattle suffered from a disease called trembles. Trembles seemed to be related somehow to grazing in rich woodlands. In early settlements there was little pastureland and most of that was of poor quality, with insufficient food to maintain cattle throughout the year, so settlers turned their cattle out to browse on understory plants in the woods. In many areas, cattle with trembles died by the thousands; whole herds were found dead in the woods. People who ate meat or drank milk from cows with trembles frequently developed milk sickness.

It was so bad in some areas that in 1836, a contributor to the Transsylvanian Journal of Medicine claimed that "some of the fairest portions of the West, in consequence of this loathsome disease, must ever remain an uninhabited waste, unless the cause and remedy can be discovered." In Danville, Indiana, one-tenth of the population died of milk sickness in a single year. In Madison County, Ohio, a quarter of the population died, and in Dubois County, Indiana, the death toll may have been one out every two people.

Cruelest of all was that the disease seemed to strike most frequently at children. This was probably because children drank more milk than adults.

Early doctors in North Carolina, Tennessee, Ohio and Indiana, the frontier states at the beginning of the nineteenth century, often confused the disease with others. Milk sickness was not even named as a separate disease until 1810, although it may have been a problem in North Carolina as early as 1775. Once it was recognized as a separate disease, the search mounted for its cause and cure. While the doctors debated, the pioneers took measures to prevent the disease. Settlers early recognized that milk sickness occurred in areas where cattle suffered from a disease called trembles and trembles seemed to be related to grazing in rich timberlands. In 1821, the Tennessee legislature required fencing to be built around certain forested areas to prevent animals from eating an unknown vegetable that apparently caused the disease. After considerable investigation by a frontier experimenter, Anna Pierce, who lost her mother and a sister-in-law and her father had a bad bout but recovered. Finally, she learned to identify the poisonous plant when she befriended a Shawnee woman, identified only as Aunt Shawnee. Aunt Shawnee took Anna Pierce to the woods and showed her the plant, white snakeroot. While this was shortly after 1828, doctors could not or would not accept the findings of Anna Pierce and continued to experiment. It was not until a century later, in 1928, that Dr. James Couch isolated tremetol, an alcohol, from snakeroot and injected it into test animals to successfully produce trembles. Thus, a major cause of death amongst early pioneers was not solved until long after the pioneer movement in the United States was over.


Copyright Charlie Tredway, Dubois County INGenWeb and Contributors