Medical Discovery News

Frontier Illness Solved by Mid-Wife

October 24, 2023 Medical Discovery News Season 18 Episode 884
Frontier Illness Solved by Mid-Wife
Medical Discovery News
Show Notes Transcript

884 Frontier Illness Solved by Mid-Wife

 Welcome to Medical Discovery News.  I’m Dr. Norbert Herzog. 

 And I’m Dr. David Niesel 

Settlers of the midwestern frontier in the early eighteen hundreds suffered a mysterious epidemic they called “milk sickness”.  

 Within days, healthy people would be confined to bed with nausea, vomiting, and constipation that often progressed to coma and death.  People blamed spooks and witches, and even abandoned regions of the Wabash River Valley in Indiana and Illinois.  

 Finally, a midwife named Anna Pierce solved the mystery but was never given credit. By the 1820’s most physicians and settlers connected the illness to cows eating some kind of poison since cows and calves died as well. 

 Dr. Anna became determined to understand milk illness after it killed her mom and sister-in-law. She believed it was a plant because the disease appeared in the summer when little rain pushed cows to forage in the woods.

 Then Anna met a Shawnee woman who showed her Ageratina altissima or white snakeroot. It’s a small plant with disc-shaped leaves and white fuzzy flowers. When Anna fed the plants to animals, they came down with milk sickness.  

 She told people to destroy the plant and within three years much of it was gone in southeastern Illinois.  However, her discovery didn’t travel far and was discounted by those in authority.  

 It took fifty years after her death for the USDA to publish a chemical analysis of snakeroot in 1927 and the toxic substances in it.  But they did not credit Anna. Again, it’s an example of how medical science continues to fail to recognize women for their contributions. 

We are Drs. David Niesel and Norbert Herzog, at UTMB and Quinnipiac University, where biomedical discoveries shape the future of medicine.   For much more and our disclaimer go to or subscribe to our podcast. Sign up for expanded print episodes at