by Mason Heberling
Nancy Hanks Lincoln (mother of Abraham Lincoln) died on October 5, 1818 from “milk sickness.” Milk sickness is caused by drinking milk from cows that have eaten the poisonous plant white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima). Also known as “puking fever” or simply “the trembles,” early European-American settlers in the Midwest initially thought
milk sickness was an infectious disease.
It was soon realized that the unidentified illnesses were caused by drinking milk from cows that ate white snakeroot, which contains the chemical tremetol, a toxin which causes weakness, pain, vomiting, abdominal pain, and can lead to coma and death. The cattle of these early settlers often wandered into the forest to graze, seeking additional forage outside limited pastures. However, milk sickness is very uncommon today due to modern farming practices, and cows rarely have access to eat this plant.
White snakeroot is a fall-blooming, shade-tolerant species found in forests across the eastern United States and commonly found throughout southwestern Pennsylvania. This specimen pictured was collected in 1998 in southwestern Indiana, about 90 miles north of the Little Pigeon Creek community where Abraham Lincoln’s family lived.
This summer is all about poison at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Staff will be sharing fascinating pieces of our collection that are toxic, poisonous, or venomous to celebrate our summer blockbuster exhibition The Power of Poison. For more information about this highly interactive, family-friendly exhibition, visit pop.carnegiemnh.org.