Some scientists are quiet, studious types who make their observations from a desk. Others are out there marrying moonshiners and burying treasure. Anna Bixby was the second kind. Learn about the plague she stopped and the legend of her gold. Gold!
Everyone agrees that Anna Bixby solved a medical mystery long before it was worked through by established medical practitioners, but that's pretty much all they agree about. Even her correct name is in dispute — she was born Pierce, married a man named Hobbs, and eventually took a second husband named Bixby. Although she's most commonly referred to as "Anna Bixby," there's some good evidence that she wouldn't have cared for the name. Some say she came to Illinois in the early 1800s as the daughter of a wealthy family from Philadelphia, and had studied medicine formally in the city, despite only being in her teens. Others say she was an impoverished Kentucky midwife who came out west with her husband. No matter what her story, people seemed happy to have her around. She came to a frontier region where talented healthcare professionals were sorely needed.
She assisted at births, and helped people with broken bones and fevers. Over time, though, she took on the most feared disease in the area — milk sickness. Everyone knew that milk sickness came from drinking milk, but no one knew exactly why, or what it was. It first caused vomiting and weakness, then spiraled into delirium and, possibly, death. Although sometimes adult cows were affected by it, it was relatively rare. It was the humans, and calves, who drank the milk who suffered the symptoms. Whole families sometimes died from drinking the wrong milk.
Anna's first breakthrough came from charting the times during which the sickness broke out over the years. It flared up in June, and died away when the first frost hit the ground. Her primary advice was practical, telling people to refrain from drinking milk during those times. That lessened the epidemic for humans, but still left calves ± who couldn't eat anything else — dying from the sickness.
Her next clue came from observing the cattle themselves. Horses and goats sometimes sickened, but for the most part, only cows seemed to suffer from the disease. Anna followed the cattle during their day, and took note of what they ate that the goats did not. Those who know the eating habits of goats may be surprised to find out that goats were quite careful about what they fed on. While the cows chowed down on anything, the goats stayed away from a certain weed, even when the two species grazed the same area. Anna experimentally fed this weed, white snakeroot, to a calf. It promptly sickened.
Anna figured out that the cows had been eating the weed as they grazed. For some reason, lactating cows could expel the poison from the weed through their milk ducts, but other creatures had it accumulate in their body. The outbreaks of sickness coincided with the months of the weed's prime growth. After teams of local kids eliminated the white snakeroot from the area, the instances of milk sickness dissipated. Sadly, the idea took decades to spread, and much of America was plagued by milk sickness into the late 1800s.
Anna wasn't faring well herself. After her husband died, Isaac Hobbs, died, she remarried a romantic moonshiner named Eson Bixby. It didn't take long for Anna to realize that marrying a career criminal was not the best choice for her. They lived in a cave, where Eson and his crew had a still. At least they didn't live there very long. Being a working physician, Anna was soon able to separate from him.
The tale gets weirder. According to legend, one night Eson kidnapped Anna by pretending to be a messenger from a sick house and getting her on his horse before galloping away. He bound her hands and was either going to kill her or keep her in the cave. She threw herself from the horse and managed to escape. Many people puzzled over why Eson came after his wife at all, which led to yet another spin-off legend. Although Anna wasn't rolling in money, she lived simply and made a good living off being a doctor. Fearing, during her cave-living years, that one of Eson's crew would steal the wealth she had accumulated, she is said to have buried it under a rock. Anna didn't live long after her harrowing escape, and the legendary rock that guards her treasure was never found. There is still a Bixby cave in Illinois, and people still sometimes search, but that particular pot of gold is lost forever.
Fortunately, we do not now suffer from milk sickness, so Anna's glory doesn't depend on gold.
Top Image: Helen Hall
White Snakeroot Image: Jerry Friedman