The curse of Milk Sickness, part 2 of 2

Posted by | June 24, 2015

(continued from yesterday…)

Not everyone sided with Drake, however.

On February 18, 1841, the KY legislature offered a reward of two thousand dollars to anyone “who shall, within five years after the passage of this act” succeed in discovering “the true cause of the disease, now known to be caused by the poisonous effects of the wild, flowering white snakeroot [editor’s emphasis] transmitted by the milk, butter, and flesh of cattle consuming the plant.” The reward went uncollected.

Dr. Anna Pierce Hobbs Bixby (1808–1869), the town physician of Rock Creek, IL for 35 years, was wrestling with the cause of milk sickness about the same time John Rowe was experimenting on his cows back in Ohio. The disease had claimed the lives of her mother and sister-in-law.

In the mid-1830s, Dr. Anna Bixby consulted a Shawnee woman about milk sickness. This midwestern Shawnee village illustration dates from 1841; it's titled ‘Kanza Village.’ Litho by George Lehman.

In the mid-1830s, Dr. Anna Bixby consulted a Shawnee woman about milk sickness. This midwestern Shawnee village illustration dates from 1841; it’s titled ‘Kanza Village.’ Litho by George Lehman.

Many residents in Dr. Bixby’s community, in southern Illinois, blamed milk sickness on potions scattered by witches. This explanation didn’t satisfy Dr. Bixby, and determined to find the cause, she studied the disease and its characteristics.

She determined that the illness was seasonal, beginning in summer and continuing until the first frost. It was more prominent in cattle than in other animals, suggesting the cause might be a plant eaten by the cattle.
Legend says that while following the cattle in search of the cause, Dr. Bixby happened upon a Shawnee Indian woman who told her that white snakeroot plant caused milk sickness.

She tested the hypothesis by feeding the plant to a calf, demonstrating its poisonous properties. Dr. Bixby and others in the community then began a campaign to eradicate the plant from the area. Although Dr. Bixby was correct in her analysis, when she died in 1869, she had received no official recognition for her discovery of the cause of milk sickness.

“With the advance of civilization, as forests were cleared and pastures fenced the disease became less frequent; by the time of the civil war [sic] the disease was by no means common,” reported the National Institutes of Health in a 1909 report. “At the present time it is one of the rarest of diseases. Trembles in animals is now almost as rare as milk sickness in man.

Eupatorium rugosum (White snakeroot)

Eupatorium rugosum (White snakeroot)

“Small epidemics are reported in some part of Tennessee every two or three years. The cases now occur only in the thinly settled regions, usually remote from lines of communication. Most frequently they are attended by a layman known locally as a milk sick doctor, who has a local reputation for curing the disease.”

Despite its position as an official representative of government health policy, the NIH report makes no mention whatsoever of Bixby’s or Rowe’s experiments, and still considers milk sickness uncured:

“Satisfactory accounts of the disease are rare. Drake, who is much quoted in all accounts of the disease, appears not to have been personally familiar with the malady; indeed in his memoir he states that he has seen no case in man, nor in the lower animals. Yandell, who is also frequently quoted and has written much on the subject, makes no mention of having himself seen cases, and in his later publications expresses grave doubt as to the existence of a specific disease corresponding to that described as milk sickness.

“In his own words: ‘Upon a review of the whole matter the conclusion to which all the testimony on the subject has brought me is that we who have written upon milk sickness have been egregiously imposed upon by careless and incompetent observers.’

Eupatorium rugosum (White snakeroot)

Eupatorium rugosum (White snakeroot)

“A large number of the articles published on milk sickness were written wholly with the object of proving that a plant poison is the cause of the disease; many others that a mineral poison is the causative agent. A few writers have regarded the disease as a manifestation of malarial poisoning.”

Finally, in 1928, researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, led by Dr. James Couch, isolated from white snakeroot a highly complex alcohol they named tremetol, and the American Medical Association recognized that Eupatorium rugosum was the cause of the milk sickness. The culprit plant had, finally, been officially discovered. As this information spread throughout the medical and agricultural communities, fencing laws and supervised milk production largely solved the milk sickness problem.

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;jsessionid=90E5D6EEF7C667AE0DF5733A41C70095?sequence=1
The Western journal of medicine and surgery, Volume 3, edited by Daniel Drake, Lunsford Pitts Yandell, Prentice & Weissinger, 1841

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