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Fruits of the earth: plants in the service of mankind

The quest for quinine

Illustrations of Peruvian bark, the male and female mandrake and the cork treePeruvian bark, the male and female mandrake and the cork treeThe age of European discovery and the subsequent growth of Europe’s far-flung empires brought a wealth of hitherto unknown plant species within reach of the continent’s physicians.

It also exposed European explorers, traders, missionaries, soldiers and colonial administrators to the medical practices and remedies of non-European peoples, from which European medicine could and did benefit. Perhaps the most significant such cross-cultural encounter was that between the Spaniards and the Peruvian Quechua people which resulted in the European discovery of quinine as an effective treatment for malaria.

Quinine is a white crystalline alkaloid which occurs naturally in the bark of the cinchona tree. Spanish settlers in Peru observed that the local Quechua people treated chills and fevers with a medicinal drink made by stirring ground cinchona bark into sweetened water. It appeared to be an effective remedy, and when, in 1638, the wife of the Spanish viceroy of Peru fell dangerously ill with malaria, her physician decided to see if it might also prove effective against that disease.

His bold experiment was successful, the patient making a quick recovery, and ‘Peruvian bark’, as it was commonly known, became one of the most eagerly sought after medicinal ingredients in Europe. Many of the early exponents of its use were Jesuits serving in Spanish Latin America and the bark was thus also known as ‘Jesuits’ bark’. In 1645 Father Bartolomé Tafur took some cinchona bark to Rome, a city plagued with malaria, and word of the bark’s efficacy soon spread to other parts of Europe.

Malaria, which, ironically, was almost certainly brought to Peru by European settlers, was endemic in Europe and Asia until well into the late 19th century, flourishing in marshy mosquito-ridden areas and regularly afflicting cities such as Rome, Venice and Seville, as well as parts of Britain.  The supply of ‘Peruvian bark’ to Europe was effectively a monopoly for the Spanish Empire and one which it guarded closely.

In 1725, when this edition of Pierre Pomet’s book was published, no European botanist had ever seen the tree from which the bark was obtained, and the illustration shown here was at best an educated guess as to its likely appearance. It was not until 1735 that the French botanist, Joseph de Jussieu, succeeded, after an arduous journey, in finding and describing the tree in its Peruvian forest habitat.

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