• History of Medicine 04.08.2015

    chocolate eupatorium garden

    August usually signals the slowing down of the perennial flower garden.  Temperatures stay high and rains diminish.  Gardeners also seek a slower pace in August.  Just as I am dreaming of cool autumn fires, the asters, sedums, and mums hit their stride in the late summer garden.

    The one plant I debate every year whether to keep or rip out – now suddenly takes center stage.  The black leaves on burgundy stems and rampant but benign, spreading habit of Eupatorium ‘Chocolate’ has filled my borders all summer, but in the role of a supporting player – easy to ignore.  But when the white fluffy flowers emerge against the black foliage in August’s sticky heat – I always think “Why don’t I prize this plant more – it’s gorgeous!?” eupatorium chocolate

    So over coffee this morning I decided to read up on Eupatorium ‘Chocolate’, and I was shocked to discover its highly toxic properties and deadly history.  Perhaps I should have been forewarned by its common name – snakeroot!

    In the wild, eupatorium (a member of the aster family) prefers the partial shade of the woodland and is native to the eastern and central parts of the United States and Canada.  As the settlers moved away from the eastern seaboard, they worked hard to carve grazing land from the woods for their horses, sheep, and cattle.  But in times when grazing was sparse the animals often wandered into the woods and ate eupatorium where they found it growing along with other forage.  It was noticed that animals that ate it somewhat continuously got what they called the “trembles”.  Often the young nursing animals of otherwise healthy appearing adults would die from the snakeroot poison passed through the mother’s milk.

    Finally, this brings us to the medical connection between what was known historically as the “milk sickness” in humans and eupatorium.  People who drank milk or ate milk products from cattle or other animals that had been feeding on snakeroot came down with symptoms similar to the animal trembles.  Affected individuals had loss of appetite, listlessness, muscle stiffness, severe constipation, vomiting, abdominal discomfort, weakness, bad breath and finally could slip into a coma and die.  In addition to “milk sickness” the condition was also known by descriptive names as “the puking fever”, “sick stomach”, and the ‘slows”.  People did not know the connection between what their animals were grazing on and the sickness.

    In the fall of 1816, Thomas Lincoln moved his family to the Little Pigeon Creek area of southern Indiana where there was a small but growing settlement.  Two years later, in the fall of 1818, people in the settlement began to die from milk sickness.  Thomas’s wife, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, came down with the trembles after nursing a sick neighbor and suffered for a week before finally succumbing to the same milk sickness.  She passed away at age 34, leaving behind a son named Abraham Lincoln, age 9.

    As an adult, Abraham Lincoln recalled carving the pegs for his mother’s coffin.  Milk sickness killed thousands of people in the early 1800s, until the cause was fully understood and the means existed to keep grazing animals adequately and securely pastured.  It is said that the cause was not fully understood until the 20th century!

    A search of PubMed finds a current 2015 article on “Milk Sickness” [below], leading me to agree with Percy Bysshe Shelley that “History is a cyclic poem written by Time upon the memories of man.”

    snakeroot pubmed

    Posted by kkg8n @ 3:10 pm