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The "milk-sick" came to the Lincoln family
08-09-2012, 01:52 PM
Post: #1
The "milk-sick" came to the Lincoln family
Truly a horrible time for the Lincoln family. I've often wondered why others in the family didn't get the sickness? If it was contracted from drinking the milk, then why Nancy-but not Thomas, Abraham, and Sarah? You say they didn't drink the milk? But even that seems odd. Why did Nancy drink the milk in the household but not the others? Do others ponder these things?

Bill Nash
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08-10-2012, 08:00 AM
Post: #2
RE: The "milk-sick" came to the Lincoln family
(08-09-2012 01:52 PM)LincolnMan Wrote:  Truly a horrible time for the Lincoln family. I've often wondered why others in the family didn't get the sickness? If it was contracted from drinking the milk, then why Nancy-but not Thomas, Abraham, and Sarah? You say they didn't drink the milk? But even that seems odd. Why did Nancy drink the milk in the household but not the others? Do others ponder these things?

Dear Bill,

An interesting point. The causitive agent found in milk is a chemical compound known as "tremetol." It is a neurotoxin that almost certainly is fatal. Your are "spot on" with your question. Certainly Sarah and Abe would be drinking milk (far more than Nancy), and could not avoid the neurotoxin. I have come to the conclusion that Nancy Hank's symptoms as well as those of the Sparrows fit quite nicely with "Brucellosis" a disease caused by a bacterium common in cattle/cows and transmitted through the meat and milk. The disease occurrs over a period of two to three weeks and is accompanied by fever, malaise, and chronic headache. This is not the pattern of tremetol poisoning. David Donald in his excellent biography, "Lincoln" on page 26 writes that Nancy died from "brucellosis." When I questioned Donald he said he was wrong, and corrected the error in the Touchstone paperback edition of his book. I told him he should have stuck to his original statement. As a biochemist/molecular biologist I have made something of a study of this case, and consulted several top chemists and toxicologists at the NIH where I worked. They agree that tremetol is most surely not the cause of Nancy's death. Brucellosis is the more likely cause. This would explain why Thomas and the two children did not contract the disease. It does not strike everyone in a household. Most infectiousdiseases do not - thank goodness. Some have greater immunity/resistance than others, especially if introduced to the bacterium in small doses early on where antibodes can be built up over time. To the best of my knowledge, Bill is the first besides myself to raise the question of Nancy's death by "milk sickness." Ed Steers
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08-10-2012, 09:57 AM (This post was last modified: 08-10-2012 09:58 AM by Rob Wick.)
Post: #3
RE: The "milk-sick" came to the Lincoln family
Ed,

That is a fascinating thought, and quite honesty, makes a great deal of sense. You need to write that up for the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association or some other outlet.

Best
Rob

Abraham Lincoln in the only man, dead or alive, with whom I could have spent five years without one hour of boredom.
--Ida M. Tarbell

I want the respect of intelligent men, but I will choose for myself the intelligent.
--Carl Sandburg
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08-10-2012, 06:53 PM
Post: #4
RE: The "milk-sick" came to the Lincoln family
Ed: I really appreciate your expert knowledge on this! And thank you for the kind words. Since the death of Nancy Hanks was likely due to the cause you described, I'm assuming there was nothing that could have been done-even if the cause had been known-because PCN had not yet been discovered? Or could a moss treatment such as what Native-Americans employed have been used?

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09-18-2012, 12:26 AM (This post was last modified: 09-18-2012 12:27 AM by PioneerLady.)
Post: #5
RE: The "milk-sick" came to the Lincoln family
Hi Ed:

I'm a soon-to-be former ranger at the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial site which focuses on Lincoln's boyhood years from ages 7-21. I'm also an M.A. student in history and I am working on my thesis, which is about milk sickness, so this prompted my curiosity!

At the park, the reason we give as to why Abraham, Sarah, and Thomas did not come down with milk sickness is due to the fact they never drank or ate any of the byproduct from the tainted cow. Nancy was attending to her ill friend Mrs. Brooner (who had the milk sickness) and we assumed that is where Nancy contracted the illness by either eating or drinking contaminated food or drink. If I remember correctly (I'll have to look it up at work), Peter Brooner, husband of Mrs. Brooner, had fallen ill as well but survived his bout with the sickness. Mrs. Brooner is buried next to Mrs. Lincoln at our site in Indiana.

You wrote that Nancy's symptoms didn't match those of tremetol poisoning. Can you share with me the source that listed her symptoms? I've never come across any that specifically spoke of her symptoms and I would love to read it!
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09-18-2012, 12:52 PM
Post: #6
RE: The "milk-sick" came to the Lincoln family
(09-18-2012 12:26 AM)PioneerLady Wrote:  Hi Ed:

I'm a soon-to-be former ranger at the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial site which focuses on Lincoln's boyhood years from ages 7-21. I'm also an M.A. student in history and I am working on my thesis, which is about milk sickness, so this prompted my curiosity!

At the park, the reason we give as to why Abraham, Sarah, and Thomas did not come down with milk sickness is due to the fact they never drank or ate any of the byproduct from the tainted cow. Nancy was attending to her ill friend Mrs. Brooner (who had the milk sickness) and we assumed that is where Nancy contracted the illness by either eating or drinking contaminated food or drink. If I remember correctly (I'll have to look it up at work), Peter Brooner, husband of Mrs. Brooner, had fallen ill as well but survived his bout with the sickness. Mrs. Brooner is buried next to Mrs. Lincoln at our site in Indiana.

You wrote that Nancy's symptoms didn't match those of tremetol poisoning. Can you share with me the source that listed her symptoms? I've never come across any that specifically spoke of her symptoms and I would love to read it!

Dear Pioneer Lady,
Without digging through my many files let me tell you my conclusion: Nancy Hanks died as a result of Brucellosis - an infectious disease found in cattle caused by the genusus "Brucella." Milk Sickness, if there is such a disease, is believed caused by the chemical compound known as "Tremetol." Tremetol is a neurotoxin, which kills. Brucellosis is a bacterial infection which may or may not kill. My suspicions were aroused when I read that Nancy lingered for several days before dying. Thomas and the children showed no signs of the disease, and surely, I thought, the children must have been drinking milk on a regular basis all the while. Why did they not show any symptoms. Remember, tremetol is a poison, a neurotoxin, and unlike bacteria which may or may not cause an infection, tremetol kills all who ingest it, children especially. Brucellosis is transmitted through both the meat and milk of the cow, and as a bacterial disease was unknown as such in 1818. Tremetol, as you know, comes from the plant Eupatorium rugosum. This plant is indigenous to many areas and ingested at times by cattle. It is not killed (inactivated) by pasteurization whila Brucella is. Why isn't "Milk Sickness" a problem in certain areas today? Especially in areas where raw milk is consumed on a large scale? Probably because it does not exist. I suspect that most all cases of "milk sickness" were actually cases of Brucellosis. Unfortunately, there is not a great deal of research or literature on the subject. There is an article in"Wonderful West Virginia" magazine (December 1982) by Earl L. Core (pp. 22-25) which discusses milk sickness and its cause. While this article defends the cause of milk sickness as coming from rugosum it doesn't really explain its "eradication" from modern milk production. If Nancy Hanks had the "trembles" I have not seen a description of it. Unfortunately, we really do not have an accurate discription of her death. I come back to the children who are the principal drinkers of milk and most susceptible to tremetol. There are many reasons why people who eat contaminated meat and drink contaminated milk do not all get sick (natural immunity being the prime answer). As a microbiologist, I am familiar with Brucellosis and its symptoms - I am not familiar with tremetol as a poison other than what is in the scientific literature. By the way, David Donald in "Lincoln" wrote that Nancy died of Brucellosis (page 26). I wrote to Donald and pointed out that he was the first to suggest this in print. He wrote back stating he made a mistake and would correct it in subsequent editions. I urged him to leave it since I believed he was right. I do not know what he did, but it stimulated little to no discussion sadly. This is a long answer for a blog but too short to do the subject justice. Please email me at ed@edsteers.com if you would like to discuss further. Good luck with your thesis and dig deeper into this subject. Ed Steers
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09-18-2012, 01:05 PM
Post: #7
RE: The "milk-sick" came to the Lincoln family
Fascinating topic, Ed - and Pioneerlady!

Thanks a bunch for an informative read -- and good luck on your thesis, Pioneerlady!

"The Past is a foreign country...they do things differently there" - L. P. Hartley
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09-18-2012, 01:35 PM
Post: #8
RE: The "milk-sick" came to the Lincoln family
(09-18-2012 12:52 PM)Ed Steers Wrote:  
(09-18-2012 12:26 AM)PioneerLady Wrote:  Hi Ed:

I'm a soon-to-be former ranger at the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial site which focuses on Lincoln's boyhood years from ages 7-21. I'm also an M.A. student in history and I am working on my thesis, which is about milk sickness, so this prompted my curiosity!

At the park, the reason we give as to why Abraham, Sarah, and Thomas did not come down with milk sickness is due to the fact they never drank or ate any of the byproduct from the tainted cow. Nancy was attending to her ill friend Mrs. Brooner (who had the milk sickness) and we assumed that is where Nancy contracted the illness by either eating or drinking contaminated food or drink. If I remember correctly (I'll have to look it up at work), Peter Brooner, husband of Mrs. Brooner, had fallen ill as well but survived his bout with the sickness. Mrs. Brooner is buried next to Mrs. Lincoln at our site in Indiana.

You wrote that Nancy's symptoms didn't match those of tremetol poisoning. Can you share with me the source that listed her symptoms? I've never come across any that specifically spoke of her symptoms and I would love to read it!

Dear Pioneer Lady,
Without digging through my many files let me tell you my conclusion: Nancy Hanks died as a result of Brucellosis - an infectious disease found in cattle caused by the genusus "Brucella." Milk Sickness, if there is such a disease, is believed caused by the chemical compound known as "Tremetol." Tremetol is a neurotoxin, which kills. Brucellosis is a bacterial infection which may or may not kill. My suspicions were aroused when I read that Nancy lingered for several days before dying. Thomas and the children showed no signs of the disease, and surely, I thought, the children must have been drinking milk on a regular basis all the while. Why did they not show any symptoms. Remember, tremetol is a poison, a neurotoxin, and unlike bacteria which may or may not cause an infection, tremetol kills all who ingest it, children especially. Brucellosis is transmitted through both the meat and milk of the cow, and as a bacterial disease was unknown as such in 1818. Tremetol, as you know, comes from the plant Eupatorium rugosum. This plant is indigenous to many areas and ingested at times by cattle. It is not killed (inactivated) by pasteurization whila Brucella is. Why isn't "Milk Sickness" a problem in certain areas today? Especially in areas where raw milk is consumed on a large scale? Probably because it does not exist. I suspect that most all cases of "milk sickness" were actually cases of Brucellosis. Unfortunately, there is not a great deal of research or literature on the subject. There is an article in"Wonderful West Virginia" magazine (December 1982) by Earl L. Core (pp. 22-25) which discusses milk sickness and its cause. While this article defends the cause of milk sickness as coming from rugosum it doesn't really explain its "eradication" from modern milk production. If Nancy Hanks had the "trembles" I have not seen a description of it. Unfortunately, we really do not have an accurate discription of her death. I come back to the children who are the principal drinkers of milk and most susceptible to tremetol. There are many reasons why people who eat contaminated meat and drink contaminated milk do not all get sick (natural immunity being the prime answer). As a microbiologist, I am familiar with Brucellosis and its symptoms - I am not familiar with tremetol as a poison other than what is in the scientific literature. By the way, David Donald in "Lincoln" wrote that Nancy died of Brucellosis (page 26). I wrote to Donald and pointed out that he was the first to suggest this in print. He wrote back stating he made a mistake and would correct it in subsequent editions. I urged him to leave it since I believed he was right. I do not know what he did, but it stimulated little to no discussion sadly. This is a long answer for a blog but too short to do the subject justice. Please email me at ed@edsteers.com if you would like to discuss further. Good luck with your thesis and dig deeper into this subject. Ed Steers

I forgot that I had already written about this. As I age I seem to forget more easily. Anyway, my recollection is that the only source of description on Nancy's death is Dennis Hanks. Like Herndon, Dennis's recollections have to be taken carefully. He loved to talk (brag) about the early years with "Abe." He did say he was the first to (other than Nancy, Tom, and Peggy Walters) to see the baby Abe. He said he looked like a bunch of squished cherries - would never amount to much. Dennis told Herndon that Nancy "died on the 7th day after she took sick." That does not sound like death by neurotoxin. It sounds much more like a bacterial infection (Hanks to Herndon interview, June 13, 1865). I know of no account of anyone tending to Nancy during her illness. The closest family were the Sparrows and they were both dying about the same time.
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09-18-2012, 01:51 PM
Post: #9
RE: The "milk-sick" came to the Lincoln family
Ed - I have the forgetfulness as well! I think mine is stress-related....

Question - can/do folk get these milk-borne diseases today? Or were they more prevalent in the 18th and 19th Centuries?

"The Past is a foreign country...they do things differently there" - L. P. Hartley
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07-27-2013, 05:06 PM
Post: #10
RE: The "milk-sick" came to the Lincoln family
I read the very scientifically credible post by Dr. Ed Seers that Nancy Hanks most likely died from Brucellosis and not milk sickness. It makes very good sense.

Dr. Soto claims her symptoms clearly point to cause of death being MEN2B.
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07-31-2013, 09:20 PM
Post: #11
RE: The "milk-sick" came to the Lincoln family
Betty - I have always been told that pasteurization prevents the illness today. However, drinking raw milk (which many people do) increases the chance of milk-born diseases. My uncle was a dairy farmer, not a doctor, so there is probably much more information available elsewhere.

Is it possible the Brooner family and the Sparrow family were drinking milk from the same cow? or at least eating milk products from the same cow? If the cow is infected, does the cow also die?
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08-01-2013, 06:36 AM (This post was last modified: 08-02-2013 09:31 AM by Eva Elisabeth.)
Post: #12
RE: The "milk-sick" came to the Lincoln family
Donna, there's an article about milk sickness on wikipedia:
http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milk_sickness


Regarding your last question it says:
Nursing calves and lambs may have died from their mothers' milk contaminated with snakeroot, although the adult cows and sheep showed no signs of poisoning. Cattle, horses, and sheep are the animals most often poisoned.

According to this article, tremetol is not inactivated by pasteurization:

Current practices of animal husbandry generally control the pastures and feed of cattle, and the pooling of milk from many producers lowers the risk of tremetol present in dangerous amounts. The poison tremetol is not inactivated by pasteurization.
Although extremely rare, milk sickness can occur if a person drinks contaminated milk or eats dairy products gathered from a single cow or from a smaller herd that has fed on the white snakeroot plant.

BTW: In the 1990ies scientists of the Swiss pharmaceutical compamy Ciba-Geigy (today Novartis) found out that cows suffering from certain illnesses (and held almost wildly on Alp meadows) eat certain combinations of herbs to cure themselves. Obviously they instinctly know what is good for them.
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08-01-2013, 07:36 AM
Post: #13
RE: The "milk-sick" came to the Lincoln family
(07-31-2013 09:20 PM)Donna McCreary Wrote:  Betty - I have always been told that pasteurization prevents the illness today. However, drinking raw milk (which many people do) increases the chance of milk-born diseases. My uncle was a dairy farmer, not a doctor, so there is probably much more information available elsewhere.

Is it possible the Brooner family and the Sparrow family were drinking milk from the same cow? or at least eating milk products from the same cow? If the cow is infected, does the cow also die?

Milk sickness is due to a chemical called tremetol, found in the snakeroot plant. Toxic effects are cumulative--meaning if you don't ingest a great deal, you can survive, although often suffering ongoing fatigue for weeks or months. Pioneers used to call that "the slows." The primary source for poisoning occurs in animals which graze (primarily cattle, horses, sheep, and deer), or feed on carcasses of affected animals. Young offspring acquire it via mother's milk. With a high enough toxin level, the animal will die just as easily as a human. Pasteurization of milk will not inactivate the poison and neither will frost. The plant grows as a weed and historically the animals were exposed when grazing in forests or woods near water. Today milk sickness is virtually unheard of in humans (last large U.S. outbreak was in the 1960s) due to use of herbicides, keeping livestock in confinement lots or supervised pastures, or pooling of milk from many producers, which dilutes the contaminant. Symptoms include vomiting, belly pain and constipation. The cause of death is by acid build up in the body (the chemical is a ketone the body metabolizes into acid), producing a condition very much like out of control diabetes. Interestingly, more than half of the recorded deaths in Dubois county, Indiana--approximately ten miles north of where the Lincolns lived--in the early 1800s was caused by milk sickness.
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08-01-2013, 06:28 PM
Post: #14
RE: The "milk-sick" came to the Lincoln family
(08-01-2013 07:36 AM)Houmes Wrote:  
(07-31-2013 09:20 PM)Donna McCreary Wrote:  Betty - I have always been told that pasteurization prevents the illness today. However, drinking raw milk (which many people do) increases the chance of milk-born diseases. My uncle was a dairy farmer, not a doctor, so there is probably much more information available elsewhere.

Is it possible the Brooner family and the Sparrow family were drinking milk from the same cow? or at least eating milk products from the same cow? If the cow is infected, does the cow also die?

Milk sickness is due to a chemical called tremetol, found in the snakeroot plant. Toxic effects are cumulative--meaning if you don't ingest a great deal, you can survive, although often suffering ongoing fatigue for weeks or months. Pioneers used to call that "the slows." The primary source for poisoning occurs in animals which graze (primarily cattle, horses, sheep, and deer), or feed on carcasses of affected animals. Young offspring acquire it via mother's milk. With a high enough toxin level, the animal will die just as easily as a human. Pasteurization of milk will not inactivate the poison and neither will frost. The plant grows as a weed and historically the animals were exposed when grazing in forests or woods near water. Today milk sickness is virtually unheard of in humans (last large U.S. outbreak was in the 1960s) due to use of herbicides, keeping livestock in confinement lots or supervised pastures, or pooling of milk from many producers, which dilutes the contaminant. Symptoms include vomiting, belly pain and constipation. The cause of death is by acid build up in the body (the chemical is a ketone the body metabolizes into acid), producing a condition very much like out of control diabetes. Interestingly, more than half of the recorded deaths in Dubois county, Indiana--approximately ten miles north of where the Lincolns lived--in the early 1800s was caused by milk sickness.

Thanks. This answered a lot questions.
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09-19-2013, 06:02 PM
Post: #15
RE: The "milk-sick" came to the Lincoln family
(08-09-2012 01:52 PM)LincolnMan Wrote:  Truly a horrible time for the Lincoln family. I've often wondered why others in the family didn't get the sickness? If it was contracted from drinking the milk, then why Nancy-but not Thomas, Abraham, and Sarah? You say they didn't drink the milk? But even that seems odd. Why did Nancy drink the milk in the household but not the others? Do others ponder these things?

In 1817, Elizabeth and Thomas Sparrow along with their wards, Dennis Hanks and Sophie Hanks, moved in with the Lincoln family at Pidgin Creek. Thomas and Nancy had just finished their cabin and move out of their lean-to. Also called a half-faced camp. The Sparrows were given the lean-to to live in while they built their cabin. Shortly after the Sparrows arrived, Nancy bought six milk cows to provide milk for the two families.

In the fall of 1818, a neighbor told Nancy and Elizabeth about the sickness that was in the area. She called it the milk-sick and told them about people dying from drinking milk. To be safe Nancy and Elizabeth stopped the children from drinking milk. Thomas didn't have a problem with the milk, he preferred whiskey. Thomas, Elizabeth, and Nancy had been drinking the milk for almost two years and believed it safe. They continued to drink the milk.

Thomas and Elizabeth became sick. Maybe they had the milk-sick and maybe they didn't. Nancy decided to drink the milk to see if it were safe. It wasn't. She and the Sparrows died of the milk-sick.
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