Monday, January 22, 2024

Milk Sickness

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, History of Science, Nature of Science, Science & Society

Doctor Anna - Anna Pierce - is an important and generally unknown figure in the history of science and medicine. 

She is the subject of a profile by Will McCarthy, "The Frontier Midwife" in Smithsonian, July - August 2023. Through her careful observations she found the cause of a disease "known initially as "the slows," "the staggers," "the trembles" and eventually "milk sickness." It was often a killer, the most notable death was that of Abraham Lincoln's mother.

McCarthy notes Anna Pierce's drive, e.g., to find things out and become a better practitioner, even going from Rock Creek Illinois "to Philadelphia to study nursing, midwifery and dentistry." Pierce's "pioneering research into the plant's (Ageratina altisima) toxic properties contribution was not noted the report published (by) the U.S. Department of Agriculture (1927) on "a chemical analysis on toxic substances in white snakeroot." The plant was eaten by cows, a link she made through meticulous research, when cows were mostly free ranging. 
To be generous, even this was a step forward for the plant was low on the list of possibilities (arsenic) and "milk sickness was rarely mentioned even in later 19th-centrury American medical textbooks. (Such books often neglected frontier medicine.)"

McCarthy's essay may be read free by first signing in.

Khaqa Ayen's You Tube entry "Mysterious Chronicles: Anna Bixby's Pursuit of Clues in the Unexplained Plagues of the 19th Century" ( 9 m 21 s) tells us the story of this largely unknown nurse and scientist.

A short history of milk sickness may be read at Wiki.

Both the video and the Smithsonian essay describe the leaves as "disc-shaped."  To me they aren't (see the Wiki entry on the plant, common field guides and this photograph and description of white snakeroot from Illinois wildflowers. Cordate, used to in the description means heart-shaped.

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