Quinine: The plant-based medicine that saved millions of lives

05 August 2016 (18160 visits)

More than 7000 medical compounds currently prescribed by physicians in Western culture are derived from plants, and some experts estimate that there are more than 21,000 medicinal plants in the world’s remaining tropical forest ecosystems.


While many travelers book eco-tourism vacations in Peru in the hope of seeing major fauna such as jaguars, responsible tourism programs also offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn more about the fascinating flora of South America’s Amazon jungle.


Perhaps the most historically important medicinal plant family of all is the tree genus known to science as Cinchona. While most people will not have heard of the Cinchona genus, they will certainly have heard of the alkaloid produced from it bark: quinine, used for centuries to treat malaria, as well as other ailments.  


The Spanish learned of the medicinal properties of the bark of the Cinchona from the Quechua-speaking indigenous people they conquered in the early 16th century, and they quickly adopted it in the treatment of the tropical fevers to which the European invaders were all too susceptible.


Quechua people routinely mixed the ground bark of the Cinchona with sweetened water, to counter the bark’s bitter taste, thus creating the first tonic water; that essential ingredient in the gin and tonic, a beverage created by British officers in India, who first added gin to their quinine to mask its unpleasant taste. Quinine is used to this day as an ingredient in tonic water.


The people of Peru had already been using quinine for countless generations, in the treatment of infections, inflammations, fever and pain, when in the 17th century it was used to treat the wife of the Spanish viceroy for malaria. Her recovery helped lead to the widespread use of quinine to combat malaria.  The name selected for the genus in the 18th century by the great botanist Carl Linnaeus is derived from the name of this illustrious patient, whose title was the Countess of Chinchon. The countess is credited with introducing the bark to Spain, from where its use quickly spread across the European continent through the wide-reaching influence of the missionaries of the Jesuit order. Eventually, the Jesuits took their cure for malaria as far afield as China and Japan, encouraged the establishing of plantations back in Peru, and were the first to plant the trees beyond South America in the 19th century.


It was the Jesuit order which first produced a powdered form of quinine for the treatment of malaria. “Jesuit’s bark”, along with “Peruvian bark”, was one of the names by which this medicine was known among the apothecaries of 17th century London.


Unfortunately, while drugs to treat malaria are now produced synthetically, historic over-exploitation of the Cinchona genus has led to all its 17 species being classified as endangered in Peru, while Cinchona officinalis, the species featured so prominently on the nation’s coat-of-arms, is said to be on the verge of extinction.



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