Frontier Illness Solved by Mid-Wife


Settlers of the midwestern frontier in the early eighteen hundreds suffered a mysterious epidemic they called "milk sickness". Within days, healthy people would be confined to bed with nausea, vomiting, and constipation that often progressed to coma and death. People blamed spooks and witches, and even abandoned regions of the Wabash River Valley in Indiana and Illinois.

Finally, a midwife named Anna Pierce solved the mystery but was never given credit. By the 1820s most physicians and settlers connected the illness to cows eating some kind of poison since cows and calves died as well. Dr. Anna became determined to understand milk illness after it killed her mom and sister-in-law. She believed it was a plant because the disease appeared in the summer when little rain pushed cows to forage in the woods.

Then Anna met a Shawnee woman who showed her Ageratina altissima or white snakeroot. It's a small plant with disc-shaped leaves and white fuzzy flowers. When Anna fed the plants to animals, they came down with milk sickness. She told people to destroy the plant and within three years much of it was gone in southeastern Illinois. However, her discovery didn't travel far and was discounted by those in authority.

It took 50 years after her death for the USDA to publish a chemical analysis of snakeroot in 1927 and the toxic substances in it. But they did not credit Anna. Again, it's an example of how medical science continues to fail to recognize women for their contributions.

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More Information

How an 1800s Midwife Solved a Poisonous Mystery
For decades before Doctor Anna's discovery, "milk sickness" terrorized the Midwest, killing thousands of Americans on the frontier...

Milk Sickness
Milk sickness, also called "milk sick fever" and "sick stomach," is caused by the excretion of tremetol or tremetone, the toxin in white snakeroot and rayless goldenrod, when these common plants are consumed by herbivorous animals. The human poisonings resulting from the consumption of contaminated meat and milk products were a serious problem in North Carolina from colonial days through the nineteenth century...

Milk Sickness (Tremetol Poisoning)
Milk sickness, usually called milksick by early nineteenth-century American pioneers, denotes what we now know to be poisoning by milk from cows that have eaten either the white snakeroot or the rayless goldenrod plants. The white snakeroot, common in the Midwest and upper South, is a member of the Compositae called Eupatorium urticaefolium. It is also known as white sanicle, squaw weed, snake weed, pool wort, and deer wort. A shade-loving plant, it is frequently seen growing on roadsides, in damp open areas of the woods, or on the shaded north side of ridges. The rayless goldenrod, Haplopappus heterophyllus, is the cause of the disease in southwestern states, such as Arizona and New Mexico...