Abraham Lincoln: "Milk Sick" Mother

Odds & Ends
Some family history (fully discussed in 1a 2a):
  • Many Lincolns died young: his mother Nancy (age 34), his son Eddie (age 3), his son Willie (age 11), and his son Tad (age 18).
  • Nancy Hanks Lincoln died during an epidemic of "milk sickness," caused by drinking the milk of cows feeding on poisonous plants. It is not clear, however, that she died of milk sickness. Some of the people who told Herndon about Nancy's death had other opinions, and it can be seen that Herndon told absolutely nothing about her signs and symptoms SEE BELOW . Fear of the milk sickness' return seems to have been a factor in the surviving Lincolns' decision to move from Indiana to Illinois in 1830 3a.
  • Eddie died after a 52-day illness that the 1850 census recorded as "chronic consumption." This old-fashioned term is compatible with both tuberculosis and cancer. Eddie was tall, and had the type of lips seen in MEN2B.
  • Willie died in the White House from an acute infection, probably typhoid fever. He had survived scarlet fever in 1860. He had long legs, and had the type of lips seen in MEN2B.
  • Tad died of progressive respiratory distress, caused by fluid around his lungs and possibly his heart. This was most likely a malignant effusion that arose from medullary thyroid cancer that had spread into his chest. Tad had the type of lips seen in MEN2B. Earlier, Tad had contracted, but survived, the illness that killed his brother Willie in 1862
  • Lincoln's oldest son, Robert, lived to age 82. His lips were normal. There is a tradition in Terre Haute, IN that Lincoln brought young Robert there to be treated with a "mad stone" after a dog bite, possibly in September 1859.
  • Abraham Lincoln's last direct descendent died in 1985.
Today, the milk sickness is known to result from Eupatorium rugosum, the white snakeroot. Cattle that eat this plant can pass a toxin to humans.

In Lincoln's time, this was not known. The Lincoln biography co-authored by his law partner, William Herndon 3b, describes the milk sickness:

In the fall of 1818, the scantily settled region in the vicinity of Pigeon Creek [Indiana] ... suffered a visitation of that dread disease common in the West in early days, and known in the vernacular of the frontier as "the milk sick."

It hovered like a spectre over the Pigeon Creek settlement for over ten years, and its fatal visitation and inroads among the Lincolns, Hankses, and Sparrows finally drove that contingent into Illinois.

To this day the medical profession has never agreed upon any definite cause for the malady, nor have they in all their scientific wrangling determined exactly what the disease itself is. A physician, who has in his practice met a number of cases, describes the symptoms to be "a whitish coat on the tongue, burning sensation of the stomach, severe vomiting, obstinate constipation of the bowels, coolness of the extremities, great restlessness and jactitation, pulse rather small, somewhat more frequent than natural, and lightly chorded. In the course of the disease the coat on the tongue becomes brownish and dark, the countenance dejected, and the prostration of the patient is great. A fatal termination may take place in sixty hours, or life may be prolonged for a period of fourteen days. These are the symptoms of the disease in an acute form. Sometimes it runs into the chronic form, or it may assume that form from the commencement, and after months or years the patient may finally die or recover only a partial degree of health."

In October 1818, Lincoln's mother became ill. He was then nine years old. Herndon continues 3c:
Her sufferings, however, were destined to be of brief duration. Within a week she too rested from her labors. ... Abe and his sister Sarah waited on their mother, and did the little jobs and errands required of them. There was no physician nearer than thirty-five miles. The mother knew she was going to die, and called the children to her bedside. She was very weak, and the children leaned over while she gave her last message.
Herndon was a tireless researcher, but modern historians believe he sometimes over-dramatized facts.
Amid the miserable surroundings of a home in the wilderness Nancy Hanks passed across the dark river. Though of lowly birth, the victim of poverty and hard usage, she takes a place in history as the mother of a son who liberated a race of men. 3d

A decade later, milk sickness was still present:

The winter of 1829 was marked by abother visitation of that dreaded disease, "the milk sick." It was making the usual ravages among the cattle. Human victims were falling before it every day, and it caused the usual stampede in southern Indiana. Dennis Hanks, discouraged by the prospect and grieving over the loss of his stock, proposed a move further westward. Returning emigrants had brought encouraging news of the newly developed state of Illinois. ... The proposition of Dennis met with the general assent of the Lincoln family. 3e
Cited Sources
  1. Sotos, John G. The Physical Lincoln: Finding the Genetic Cause of Abraham Lincoln's Height, Homeliness, Pseudo-Depression, and Imminent Cancer Death. Mt. Vernon, VA: Mt. Vernon Book Systems, 2008.
    a  pp.106-115, 140-145

    Comment: More information at: http://www.physical-lincoln.com/

  2. Sotos, John G. The Physical Lincoln Sourcebook. Mt. Vernon, VA: Mt. Vernon Book Systems, 2008.
    a  pp.206-310

    Comment: More information at: http://www.physical-lincoln.com/

  3. Herndon, William H. and Weik, Jesse W. Herndon's Life of Lincoln. Cleveland: World Publishing, 1942 (originally published 1888).
    a  p.56  b  pp.25-26  c  pp.26-27  d  pp.27  e  pp.56-57

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