Doctor Anna is one of Southern Illinois' legends - one of those real people whose stories have most likely been embelished but certainly have some basis in fact.
Anna Pierce was born about the year 1808 in the more settled country of the East. When she was sixteen she moved with her parents to Hardin County, in southern Illinois. Before long, Anna returned to Philadelphia, where she took courses to become a physician. At that time, subject areas taught to women were limited. In 1828, she returned to Hardin County where she was the only physician. Within a few years she married a neighbor named Mr. Hobbs
Anna was soon confronted by an epidemic called milk sickness. The illness killed animals and people, among them Anna's mother and her sister-in-law Mary Hobbs. Many settlers in the Midwest were afflicted or killed by milk sickness, including Abraham Lincoln's mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln. Many residents in Anna's community blamed milk sickness on potions scattered by witches. This explanation didn't satisfy Anna, and determined to find the cause, she studied the disease and its characteristics. She determined that the illness was seasonal, beginning in summer and continuing until the first frost. It was more prominent in cattle than in other animals, suggesting the cause might be a plant eaten by the cattle.
The legend says that while following the cattle in search of the cause, she happened upon a Shawnee Indian woman who told her that white snakeroot plant caused milk sickness. Anna tested the hypothesis by feeding the plant to a calf, demonstrating its poisoness properties. She and others in the community then began a campaign to eradicate the plant from the area.
Although Anna was correct in her analysis, when she died in 1869, she had received no official recognition for her discovery of the cause of milk sickness. In fact, the medical community did not recognize the plant as the cause of the disease until well into the 20th Century.
John A. Logan College