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Indiana Magazine of History

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IU Media Relations

Last modified: Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Indiana history journal probes disease that killed Lincoln's mother

April 11, 2006

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The dreaded 19th-century disease known as milk sickness claimed the lives of many Hoosiers. Among them was Nancy Hanks Lincoln, who died in 1818 leaving behind her family, including 9-year-old Abraham.

In the March issue of the Indiana Magazine of History, Dr. Walter J. Daly, dean emeritus of the Indiana University School of Medicine, tells how milk sickness began to appear among early 19th-century Midwestern pioneers. The mysterious disease was unknown along the Eastern coast and elsewhere in the world. For decades, doctors and researchers debated the cause, while most of those who contracted the disease suffered a quick but painful death.

"Ordinary settlers and their doctors found it unpredictable, untreatable and highly fatal," Daly writes. "Milk sickness killed many, frightened more and caused local economic crises. Villages and farms were abandoned; livestock died; entire families were killed. Migration to areas thought to be safer became common. And then the disease almost disappeared without any special preventive actions ... Its disappearance would prove to be a consequence of the progress of Midwestern civilization and advances in agriculture."

Daly traces the story through decades of writings about the sickness, from sources as varied as county histories and medical textbooks, until he arrives in the mid-20th century, when researchers finally confirmed that milk sickness is caused by a poison produced by the white snakeroot plant. Grazing animals, such as cows and goats, ate the plant and passed the poison to humans through milk and meat. Modern farming practices eliminated much of the disease, and modern medical research found a cure. When the last recorded cases among humans occurred in 1963, the patients were quickly restored to health.

However, Daly notes, "white snakeroot still grows freely throughout the southern Indiana woods, even within 20 feet of the putative grave of Nancy Lincoln."

Another article featured in the issue is an original diary, written during the winter of 1834-35 by Posey County native Asbury Cloud Jaquess, detailing his flatboat journey down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to Natchez and New Orleans. An essay by historian Thomas C. Buchanan examines a hanging described in the journal and what the incident reveals about antebellum race relations.

The Indiana Magazine of History is published quarterly by the History Department of Indiana University Bloomington, in cooperation with the Indiana Historical Society, which offers the journal as a benefit of membership. The magazine's Web site can be found at For general information on the articles, contact the editorial office of the magazine at 812-855-4139.