Medical Question: Life Threatening Condition 1830’s

This medical question for a current work in progress came to me via Facebook. Remember, I am always looking for those pesky medical questions to answer to make sure your medical stuff has the ring of truth… even if it is fiction.

Question: Is there a life-threatening condition that twins could have that could be fixed with minor surgery in the 1830’s?

Answer: This question sets up a very difficult scenario for the author to work through. First conundrum is the “life-threatening”, ” minor surgery” and “1830’s”. First of all, most life-threatening conditions require a fairly extensive surgery to fix. One life-threatening option that might easily be fixed would be to have a severed artery that could be tied off. But, this doesn’t fit with the twin scenario. Next problem is that surgery wasn’t all that advanced in this time period. No OR’s… etc.

Secondly, a condition that affects the twins. First thought that came to my mind was a congenital heart defect present in identical twins that would require surgery. But again, limited by the chosen era. Not a good solution.

Then, I thought of the post I did on milk sickness A good idea for this time era would actually be a medical condition that the local doctor could figure out and treat. Something along the lines of a toxic plant poison passed through the mother’s milk or a metabolic disorder that could be managed by diet. It would take a very crafty doctor to figure out and would be a plausible option given the constraints of that time period. Here’s an extensive list:

Any other thoughts for this writer?

Anna Bigsby: Milk Sickness

Around 1828, a midwife by the name of Anna Bigsby (possibly Bixby) noticed a strange occurrence that milk sickness seemed to occur during summer and early fall. She began to warn her neighbors not to drink milk until after the first frost.

Milk sickness, also known as puking stomach, sick stomach and the slows may have taken the life of Abraham Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks. Symptoms included loss of appetite, weakness, muscle pain and stiffness, vomiting, constipation and coma.


Shawnee women showed Anna the responsible plant: Snakeroot. The cows would eat the plant and the toxin would build up in their milk and poison those who drank it. To ensure this was the right plant, Anna fed some of the leaves to a calf who then became ill. She warned her fellow southern Illinois settlers about it and they eradicated the plant and thus eliminated the illness from their community.

Unfortunately, Anna was a midwife and her expertise was not particularly appreciated by physicians outside her community during that time. Thus, milk sickness persisted widely until the 1920’s when the US Department of Agriculture officially discovered the cause to be snakeroot.

I wonder how many lives could have been saved during those 100 years? Adapted from: