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Milk sickness --also known as tremetol poisoning or in animals as trembles-- is characterized by trembling, vomiting, and severe intestinal pain that affects individuals who eat dairy products or meat from a cow that has fed on white snakeroot. Although highly rare today, milk sickness claimed thousands of lives in the early 1800s. A notable victim was Abraham Lincoln's mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln. Nursing calves and lambs may die from their mothers' milk contaminated with snakeroot even though the mother animals show no signs of poisoning. Cattle, horses, and sheep are the animals most often poisoned.
Milk sickness was first diagnosed by Dr. Thomas Barbee of Bourbon County, Kentucky in 1809. Variously described as "the trembles", "the slows" or the illness "under which man turns sick and his domestic animals tremble," it was a frequent cause of illness and death, sometimes killing as many as half the people in a particular settlement. Bloodletting was attempted as a treatment, with little success.
The disease emerged in the early 1800s when it become common to graze cattle in the areas where the white snakeroot grows. Cattle will not graze on this plant unless other forage is not available; however, when pastures are scarce or in times of drought, cattle will graze in woods because of the abundance of green plants.
Cases were identified in Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Illinois. The illness was particularly ruinous in Henderson County, Kentucky, along the banks of the Green River. Because of the great damage the disease was wreaking on the state, on January 29 1830, the Kentucky General Assembly offered a $600 reward to anyone discovering the cause of the disease. This reward sparked many scientists in the area to try to determine the cause of the illness, but without success. Only clearing the riverbanks and grazing cattle on tended fields caused it to disappear in the affected area.
While medical science did not officially recognize the cause of milk sickness as the white snakeroot plant until 1928, anecdotal evidence and legend points to Dr. Anna Pierce Hobbs Bixby (1808–1869) as the first to discover the disease's cause. Many residents in Dr. Bixby's community blamed milk sickness on potions scattered by witches. This explanation didn't satisfy Dr. Bixby, and determined to find the cause, she studied the disease and its characteristics. She determined that the illness was seasonal, beginning in summer and continuing until the first frost. It was more prominent in cattle than in other animals, suggesting the cause might be a plant eaten by the cattle.
The legend says that while following the cattle in search of the cause, Dr. Bixby happened upon a Shawnee Indian woman who told her that white snakeroot plant caused milk sickness. Anna tested the hypothesis by feeding the plant to a calf, demonstrating its poisonous properties. She and others in the community then began a campaign to eradicate the plant from the area. Although Dr. Bixby was correct in her analysis, when she died in 1869, she had received no official recognition for her discovery of the cause of milk sickness.
Signs and symptoms
The disease is typically characterized by:
Although tremetol is not inactivated by pasteurization, human disease is uncommon today due to current practices of animal husbandry and the pooling of milk from many producers. Although rare, the disease can occur if someone drinks milk gathered from a single cow or from a smaller herd.
Kleber, John J. et al. (1992). The Kentucky Encyclopedia. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press. ISBN 0-8131-1772-0.
|This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Milk_sickness". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.|