Dr. Anna and the Fight for the Milksick
In the fall of 1834, Dr. Anna Pierce Hobbs Bixby strode into the dense forest covering Hobbs' Ridge. It was the perfect day to carry on her hunt for the unknown killer herb that she thought had been devastating both the human and livestock populations of the pioneer settlement of Rock Creek. Little did she know that soon she would solve the medical mystery that would save thousands of families and farms.
At age sixteen, Anna Pierce came from Philadelphia with her family. Descending from the mountains into Kentucky, the Pierce family drove westward across the Ohio River into Illinois at Ford's
Ferry in 1824. They established a farm just north of what later became Rock Creek in southeastern Illinois.
Anna was a religious and social-minded young woman. She served as secretary at the Rock Creek Church and also taught in the first Rock Creek school. Disturbed by the sad state of health of the pioneers, coupled with a lack of doctors in the area, Anna decided to become a physician. She returned to Philadelphia to take courses in nursing, midwifery, and dental extraction, all the medical courses offered to women of the day. After she finished her education in 1828, she returned to Rock Creek to minister to the medical needs of the community.
Being the only doctor in southeastern Illinois, Dr. Anna, as she was called, coped fairly well with the ailments of the frontiersmen, until an epidemic of a strange disease tore through the settlement. Not long after the onset of the epidemic, she noted in her diary that the men and animals that contracted the disease had been drinking milk. Anna's deep concern with the highly fatal disease became even more acute when her mother and sister-in-law died and her father was made seriously ill by the ailment. These tragedies weighed heavily upon Anna. She felt a personal responsibility for the deaths and suffering in the community. "There is no one to be blamed for this awful scourge, unless it is Anna Bixby," she declared in her diary. "The people have looked to me to meet and treat such epidemics, but I have failed."
After discovering that the disease was caused by drinking milk or eating butter, Anna made a second observation. She noticed that the ailment was seasonal, beginning in June and ceasing soon after the first frost. Then she observed that although both men and some cows were dying of the disease, milk cows appeared not to contract the disease. Anna wrote in her diary: "I am convinced now that the poison which kills the calves and people saves the cows by being discharged through the milk glands. So I am writing a few letters this morning and telling everyone I can to abstain wholly from milk and butter from June until after the killing frosts."
Next, Anna observed that horses, sheep, and goats did not develop milk sickness to any extent. From this, she concluded that an herb was responsible for the disease, reasoning thus, "Sheep and goats are careful in selecting their foods, and horses are grass-eaters, while cattle are herbivorous and not careful in their selection. These things prove to us that it is not a grass, but an herb that is spreading sorrow and death among us."
Dr. Anna began to follow the grazing cattle, checking the plants they fed upon. One day while walking with the cattle through the woods, she happened to find an elderly Shawnee Indian medicine woman, who had been left behind by the tribe when they were scattered at the close of the War of 1812. Dr. Anna took the old woman into her home to care for her. After learning about the milk sickness plague and that Dr. Anna was so concerned, the elderly medicine woman took Dr. Anna into the woods and showed her the white snakeroot and told her that this was the plant causing the milk sickness.
Dr. Anna wanted to test this for herself. When she fed the white snakeroot to a calf, it soon developed the sickness. Other calves not fed the snakeroot remained healthy. It was proof that the cause of this terrible ailment was the poison snakeroot. Cows ate the snakeroot and gave poison milk to the calves. Humans—especially children—who drank the milk became sick.
Anna started a snakeroot eradication program to eliminate the poisonous herb from the area. She encouraged men and boys to search the woods and fields, uprooting and burning all of the white snake-root that they could find. The program lasted for three years throughout the summer and fall. At the end of the program, the weed and the disease had been virtually eliminated from southeastern Illinois.
Now that the cause was discovered, Anna wanted other doctors to know of the plant. She grew a patch of it in her garden and wrote letters inviting physicians in the nearby regions to come and examine it.
It was not until 1928, however, that the American Medical Association recognized that the white snakeroot was the cause of the milk sickness. This was partly because the association was located on the East Coast, and communications were bad. Another reason was that the disease was confined to the Midwest and the doctors in the East never had the occasion to learn of this disease. It is also doubtful that the medical association would have paid much attention to a letter received from an unknown woman frontier doctor.
Dr. Anna Pierce Hobbs Bixby continued to serve as Rock Creek's only physician until her death of a heart attack at age sixty-one. She died having not received recognition for her remarkable discovery.
Anna Bixby was an important figure in Illinois history. She has become a great role model for young women in today's society, and she was the source of a medical breakthrough.—[From: Kelly A. Cichy, Women Meet the Challenge in Southern Illinois History; Lowell A. Dearinger, "Dr. Anna and the Milksick," Outdoor Illinois (March 1967); Lowell A. Dearinger, "Free-Fer-Alls and Cornbread," Outdoor Illinois (October 1963); William D. Snivelyand Louanna Furbee, "Discoverer of the Cause of Milk Sickness," Journal of the American Medical Association (June 1966).]