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October 18, 1985

The Milk Sickness: Drake on Medical Interpretation

Author Affiliations

From Firelands College, Bowling Green State University, Huron, Ohio.

JAMA. 1985;254(15):2123-2125. doi:10.1001/jama.1985.03360150099034

Milk sickness was one of the most obscure diseases to confront the pioneers of the 1800s. Since the disease was unknown in Europe and the New England states, the physicians along the East Coast tended to deny its existence. Yet as more and more pioneers crossed the mountains into the Midwest, the mortality rate increased. In Madison County, southwest of Columbus, nearly one fourth of the early settlers died of this mysterious illness. During the epidemic of 1818 the little community of Pigeon Creek, Ind, was almost exterminated by the pestilence. One casualty was Abraham Lincoln's mother, Nancy Hanks.

Few medical journals were available to the pioneer physicians before the middle of the 19th century and there were few means of sharing information, so that facts about milk sickness accumulated very slowly. The illness remained mysterious until the early part of the 20th century.1,2

Milk sickness is now known