December 20, 2012

Not Exactly a Movie Review

I just got home from seeing the movie Lincoln. What a powerful film! It is amazing how much has changed since the 1860's (transportation, communication) and how much has not changed at all (contentious politics, the pain of loss). A friend of mine was inspired by the film to delve a bit deeper into Lincoln's life, and suggested that I write a blog post about a link between Lincoln and botany: the death of his mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln.

Nancy Hanks was born in Campbell County, Virginia, and was orphaned at a young age. She moved to Kentucky with an uncle and his family, where she met Thomas Lincoln. They were married in 1806 and had three children  After losing 3 farms in Kentucky due to boundary and title disputes, the Lincoln family moved to southern Indiana in 1816 where they literally carved out a life in the wilderness.

Thomas Lincoln and his son Abraham cleared the land, planted crops and built a log home using wood from the surrounding forest. Life was manageable, but in the fall of 1818, neighbors in the area became terribly ill from what was called milk sickness. 

Although they didn't know it at the time, this illness, characterized by severe intestinal pain and vomiting, was caused by ingesting milk or other dairy products or meat from a cow that has eaten a plant called White Snakeroot (Ageritina altissima). This plant is extremely common in Ohio and much of the midwest and we saw a lot of it this past summer:

White Snakeroot is a shade-loving plant found throughout Indiana, Ohio, parts of Kentucky, and the wooded parts of Illinois. It is common along roadsides, in damp open areas and on shaded north sides of ridges. Its range does not extend much farther east than Ohio, thus settlers were unfamiliar with it and its toxic properties so allowed their livestock to graze at will in the pastures and forests. 

Thousands of lives reportedly were lost to milk sickness along the Ohio River Valley and its tributaries where the plant is common. Although a connection between the illness and snakeroot was suspected by 1830, the cause of milk sickness was not officially discovered until 1928 when biochemists were able to analyze the plant's chemical makeup. Snakeroot contains the compound tremetol which is described as a "potent toxin" and its effects are usually fatal. It is an unsaturated alcohol with the consistency and odor of turpentine.

The disease was particularly prevalent in drought years, when cows would wander from dry pastures into woods to forage. As the land was cleared and pastures were fenced, the incidence of the disease decreased.

Plants contain some pretty amazing chemicals, certainly capable of curing diseases as well as causing them. The roots of the snakeroot plant were used topically to treat snakebites, hence the plant's name. 

Here is a closer picture of the snakeroot flowers:

When neighbors of the Lincolns in the Little Pigeon Creek settlement where they lived in southern Indiana became ill, Nancy helped care for the sick. Apparently she also drank the contaminated milk, fell ill, and died on October 5, 1818, when her son was 9 years old.

At least that is what many sources report! In fact, medical diagnosis and care in the early 19th century on the frontier was pretty minimal, and certainly lacked detailed record keeping that anyone would have access to now for review. Descriptions of many aspects of life on the frontier and specifically about Lincoln's family are a complicated combination of verifiable facts and speculation.

There is some conjecture that Nancy Hanks Lincoln died not from milk sickness but from a "wasting disease" such as tuberculosis or some form of cancer. We'll never know for sure, but certainly, many deaths have been attributed to milk sickness and it was a much-feared consequence of living on the midwestern frontier.

In any event, be sure to see the movie! The entire cast is excellent, and Daniel Day-Lewis gives an amazing portrayal of Abraham Lincoln.


  1. Thanks for the film review and the botany lesson. I know very little about young Abraham's life and didn't realize his mother died when he was so young.

  2. I agree that the movie is fantastic! I've always heard/read about milk sickness, so I am glad to learn more about it!--Linda H.

  3. My husband just checked out your blog and told me that you had beaten me to the punch (I had been talking to him for months about doing a post on white snakeroot and Lincoln's mother). At any rate, you did a great job! The only information that I had come across that was a bit different from your account was how white snakeroot got its name. I had read somewhere that it was named this because if you dig up its root, it is long and reminiscent of a snake. Now I don't know if that's true or not. I tried googling for a photo of its root, and the best I could come up with as this ( But there wasn't enough information to confirm that this is a photo of the same species.

  4. Oh my--that root is really strange looking!It is interesting that a lot of botany "lore" such as plant name origin is quite variable and in most cases can't really be confirmed. The names themselves vary locally so much that it can create a lot of confusion. Also, I often wonder if the medicinal uses that are attributed to certain plants actually are effective--but I don't really want to test them myself! Thanks for your note!