Anna Pierce Hobbs Bixby was a female frontier doctor and in today’s language, an all-around badass. She was one of the first white people to learn the cause of milk sickness and to document it. There are numerous stories about her life and while some aspects are likely embellished, she seems a smart, resourceful, skilled person helping her community and fighting the prejudices against women of her time (which continues).
I am not much of a biographer and don’t really know that much about her. I am writing this because I was intrigued by her story while researching milk sickness. The information here is gleaned from multiple sources. This is far from exhaustive, and potentially wildly inaccurate but a place to start for those who are interested in the person and the topic.
A Disease of Unknown Origin
In the Midwest of the US in the early 1800s, many colonists were getting severe gastrointestinal symptoms from an unknown illness that would often kill them. The most famous victim was Nancy Hanks Lincoln, the mother of Abraham Lincoln, who died of this in 1818.
Anna Pierce Hobbs Bixby
Dr. Anna (as she was known) has a lot of stories surrounding her life. Some of the skills attributed to her are midwife, frontier doctor, dentist, herbalist, and scientist. She trained as a midwife and dentist in Philadelphia and then moved to southeastern Illinois. As there was a lack of doctors, she was also the only physician in her region.
Note-there are stories saying that she never trained professionally, but still practiced as a midwife and doctor.
She lived in the area where the mysterious disease was causing many deaths, including both her mother and sister.
Calves were also getting sick, making a link between cows and the disease. She saw how the disease was seasonal and reasoned that the illness was likely caused by a poisonous plant ingested by cows. She was unable to find the source on her own.
A medicine woman of the Shawnee Nation told her the plant that was responsible for the sickness. With this information, she conducted some experiments and reinforced the information that the poisonous plant was White snakeroot (Ageratina altissima, formerly Eupatorium rugosum in the Asteraceae).
I want to point out that in this story (as in so many other’s), the Native People’s are barely mentioned except for the Shawnee medicine woman
And even with Dr. Anna’s research, the cause of the poisoning was not published until 1928, 55 years after she died. While Dr. Anna saved many lives, the fact that she was female meant that her studies were not taken seriously, likely increasing the number of colonists who succumbed to this now preventable illness.
It is difficult to find in-depth information on this disease. Here are some of the commonly noted facts.
Milk sickness is caused by ingesting plants that contain tremetol, which is found in White snakeroot. It causes severe gastrointestinal symptoms and pain, often leading to death. It is ingested through eating or drinking milk, dairy products and meat from animals that ate the White snakeroot
In animals, it primarily affects young calves or lambs that are nursing. Their symptoms include vomiting and shaking giving rise to another name for this illness, ‘the trembles’. It does not usually affect older animals, which made it more difficult to decipher the cause of the sickness.
Back to Anna Pierce Hobbs Bixby
There are many stories, and tall tales about Dr. Anna. Her second husband, Eson Bixby was generally described as a criminal, and by most accounts, a major douche. He was abusive and tried to force Anna to disclose a supposed treasure that was hidden in a cave. But instead of giving him the information, she jumped from a cliff in which the trees broke her fall allowing her to escape. The Anna Bixby Women’s Center in Harrisburg, IL offers services for people affected by domestic violence and was named after her due to her strength and reliance
One of the most intriguing tales is about a treasure that she buried in a cave in Hardin County, Illinois, which has yet to be discovered.