Variously described as the trembles, the slows, or the illness “under which man turns sick and his domestic animals tremble,” milk sickness was a frequent 19th century cause of illness and death throughout much of Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Ohio (also Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan). It sometimes killed as many as half the people in a particular settlement.
William Tompkins and Barnet Fowler, farmers in Kenton County, KY, were the first to be officially identified as having died of the mysterious ailment, in 1795. Nearly one fourth of the early settlers in Madison County, OH, fell victim to the pestilence, but the worst recorded incidence was the ‘epidemic’ of 1818 in which nearly all of the residents of Pigeon Creek, IN, were exterminated. The disease’s most famous victim was probably Nancy Hanks, mother of Abraham Lincoln, who died of it that same year, in Spencer County, IN.
Dr. Thomas Barbee of Bourbon County, KY, the first to diagnose the disorder, in 1809, understood that his patients became sick as a result of drinking milk or eating butter from cows who trembled, though it wasn’t at all clear to him what was causing the cattle themselves to become ill.
The following year, Dr. Daniel Drake of Ohio published a description of the symptoms in Notices Concerning Cincinnati: “It almost invariably commences with a general weakness and lassitude, which increase in the most gradual manner. About the same time, or soon after, a dull pain, or rather soreness, begins to affect the calves of the legs, occasionally extending up to the thighs. The appetite becomes rather impaired, and in some cases, nearly suspended; sensations of a disagreeable kind affect the stomach upon taking food.” Drake, however, did not name the disease and apparently at the time of this first published piece did not even connect its occurrence with tainted milk.
The legislature of Tennessee passed an 1821 act requiring fences to be made around certain coves in Franklin County “to prevent animals from eating an unknown vegetable, thereby imparting to their milk and flesh qualities highly deleterious.”
In 1840 Daniel Drake traveled within a 150 mile radius of Cincinnati, on horseback and foot, studying the geology and botany of the area and consulting with physicians and farmers to uncover the ‘unknown vegetable.’
From his study of the etiology Drake suggested five plants that might cause milk sickness: Eupatorium rugosum (White snakeroot), Bignonia capreolata (Creeper), fungi, Rhus venevata (Poison sumac) and Rhus toxicodendron (Poison ivy). He narrowed the plants down to white snakeroot and poison ivy, then rejected the former because it was so common and had no poisonous properties.
Meanwhile, in 1838, Fayette County, OH farmer John Rowe, suspecting that white snakeroot might be the cause of milk sickness, fed leaves from the plant to some of his animals. Sure enough, they developed the disease and died. The farmer published his exciting find in the local newspaper. But farmers don’t make medical discoveries, do they? No, at that time, only certified professionals were allowed to make discoveries.
Drake commented on John Rowe’s experiments in The Western Journal of Medicine and Surgery: “It must be admitted that the plant on which Mr. Rowe experimented possesses some active properties, as four animals under its use died with what were pronounced to be symptoms of Trembles. Still, the mode of conducting the experiments differed too widely from that in which the animal is likely to eat the poisonous plant—in the woods—and the decision that the animals killed by it had the Trembles is far from conclusive or binding.
“A professional scrutiny only can be relied on in such cases. The testimony adduced by Mr. Rowe is therefore defective and inconclusive, even if nothing could be found to oppose it; but there are several facts which directly invalidate it.”
Because Drake was such a prominent physician and scientist, his theories were accepted by most in the mainstream medical establishment.
National Institutes of Health bulletin, Issue 56 By National Institute of Health (U.S.), Hygienic Laboratory (U.S.)
1985 DANIEL DRAKE SYMPOSIUM syllabus; online at https://kb.osu.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/1811/23063/V085N2_001.pdf;jsessionid=90E5D6EEF7C667AE0DF5733A41C70095?sequence=1
The Western journal of medicine and surgery, Volume 3, edited by Daniel Drake, Lunsford Pitts Yandell, Prentice & Weissinger, 1841