In the Midwest, “milk sickness” was rampant, claiming the lives of thousands of Americans until one woman named Dr. Anna Bixby was able to determine the cause.
As settlers traveled into new territory with their livestock in the early 1800s, that was when the disease first made an appearance. People afflicted with the sickness experienced vomiting and weakness. It was often followed by delirium and a coma, eventually leading to death in many cases.
It usually struck in the summertime when the weather had been hot and dry. It was well-known that milk sickness came from drinking milk, but no one knew exactly why.
Nothing like this had ever been heard of in other parts of the world. The settlers were terrified. Some of them blamed witches or toxic vapors that rose from the ground. People even left certain areas in Indiana and Illinois, believing them to be cursed.
During that time, most families owned a milk cow that grazed in the fields surrounding their homes. By the 1820s, doctors and settlers came to the conclusion that the cows must’ve been ingesting some type of poison, which contaminated their milk and the humans who drank it.
Calves who consumed the milk also died, and so did some adult cows, although that was more of a rarity. But Dr. Anna was the one who was able to piece the puzzle together.
Dr. Anna was born in Philadelphia as Anna Pierce in the early 1800s. When she was a young girl, her family headed west and settled down in southern Illinois. Growing up, she was moved by the neighboring settlers’ poor health conditions and decided to study medicine.
Once she became a midwife, she traveled around the region, assisting with births, broken bones, and various illnesses. When milk sickness reached her area, her family was heavily affected by it. Anna’s mother and sister-in-law ended up dying from the disease. Her father was left in a debilitated state.
Anna took it upon herself to decipher this medical mystery. After charting the times that the sickness tended to flare up, she realized it was seasonal. It peaked in June, then dipped when the first frost arrived. So, she advised her neighbors to refrain from consuming milk and butter during the warmer months.