Wednesday, November 13, 2013

In last week’s "Did You Know" article, I wrote about a strange illness that hit migrants who were moving to the Midwest in the early 19th century. The fatality rate was so high that sometimes half the people in a frontier settlement might die of milk sickness. The disease seemed to originate with animals, which died by the thousands, as well. No one knew the cause, only that it appeared to hit people after they consumed meat or milk from infected animals. When farmers cleared the riverbanks and grazed cattle on tended fields, the spread of the illness abated.

The cause remained unknown until Dr. Anna Pierce Hobbs (Bixby) began practicing in Rock Creek, Illinois. Some documents state that Dr. Anna studied nursing, midwifery, and dental extraction in Philadelphia—the only medical courses offered to women during that time.

Apparently she dealt well with the frontier ailments the settlers faced until an epidemic of milk sickness ripped through the settlement. Her mother and sister-in-law died, and her father became seriously ill with the ailment.

Dr. Anna was driven to find a reason for the disease. She determined that it was seasonal and began in summer and continued until the first frost. She also noted that it was more prominent in cattle than in other animals, suggesting the cause might be a plant eaten by the cattle, which are herbivorous and not careful in their selection of plants they eat.

Legend says that while Dr. Anna followed the cattle in search of the cause, she happened upon a Shawnee Indian woman who told her that white snakeroot plant caused milk sickness. When the animals ingested the plant, it poisoned their milk.

Dr. Anna then tested her hypothesis by feeding the plant to a calf, demonstrating its poisonous properties. The doctor, along with others in her community, began a campaign to eradicate the plant from the area. Although Dr. Anna was correct in her analysis, she received no official recognition for her discovery.

Not until 1928 did researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, led by Dr. James Couch, isolate the cause of disease from white snakeroot. It was a highly complex alcohol they named tremetol. At that point, white snakeroot was officially named the cause of milk sickness. As the knowledge spread throughout the medical and agricultural communities, fencing laws and supervised milk production largely solved the milk sickness problem.

Human milk sickness is uncommon in the United States today, although the poison is not inactivated by pasteurization. Current practices of animal husbandry control the pastures and feed of cattle, mostly eliminating the possibility of tremetol poisoning in the milk supply.

As for Dr. Anna Pierce Hobbs Bixby, she is the subject of some controversy. She was the subject of plays, poems, and a ballad. Some claim she was simply an illiterate midwife, not a well-read medical doctor.  But she served as Rock Creek's only physician until her death in 1873 of a heart attack at age sixty-one.

1 comment :

  1. It doesn't matter if she was a well-read medical doctor or not. She had God-given brains and put them to good use! Thanks for the update - I waited patiently all week! :D


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