Tonic water: Miracle cure for the scourge of malaria

The story of Dona Francisca Henriquez de Ribera, the Countess of Chinchon, might even be true. Because it is said to have happened in 1638, it is a little hard to verify. But the story goes that the countess became ill while living with her husband in what is now Peru.

She came down with intermittent fevers, or ague, today known as malaria. Malaria is a parasitic disease that can cause a series of severe, periodic fevers, which often lead to death if untreated. If one does survive, it may literally require months of convalescence.

Her husband, the viceroy, was desperate as it appeared his wife would die. At this time the governor of the province told him that several years earlier he had been on the verge of death from “the fever” when a Jesuit priest had recommended he try a native remedy. The medicine came from the bark of a tree that grew in what is today Ecuador in South America.

The Indians called it ayac cara, which means “bitter bark.” Sometimes they called it quina quina or the “bark of barks.”

The viceroy took the governor’s suggestion and gave his wife the powdered bark from the Chinchona tree. She was cured. A few years later she returned to Spain and told the story of the “Fever Bark” far and wide. Eventually the Spanish developed a rich trade in the bark of the Chinchona tree, imported from their holdings in South America.

The fever bark was first called “countess’ powder” or “Jesuit’s bark.” Today we call the active ingredient quinine. Until the 1940s, it was the only real treatment for malaria.

It is hard for us to understand the impact of such a discovery. It could be compared to someone discovering a quick, reliable cure for cancer today. Malaria had been a scourge throughout the Mediterranean countries and Europe for centuries. It had stopped the armies of Alexander the Great, Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan and Napoleon Bonaparte.

Even Columbus suffered from the disease. The devastating effects of malaria literally changed the course of history on numerous occasions.

Malaria was common in Rome. Rome originally was seven separate communities built on adjacent hills. The low lands between the hills were dismal swamps, which the people eventually drained and turned into markets and forums. Mosquitoes were a routine and constant problem, so malaria was ever present.

In fact, there is a tombstone in a Roman cemetery that commemorates a woman who was so virtuous that she lived 40 years without ever having had “the fever.” It is revealing that malaria was so common that this was the most remarkable distinction of a virtuous woman. Presumably she stayed home on her hillside and didn’t go gallivanting off through the low lands to be bitten by mosquitoes.

In fact, it is from the Romans that we inherit the name malaria, which literally means “bad air.” It was not discovered until 1902 that the disease was transmitted by a mosquito, but it was well known that damp, swampy air was associated with it. Hence it was associated with breathing nasty, swampy air.

Malaria was a scourge in the United States as well. It was not just in Florida and other Southern states, but it occurred along the entire Mississippi River Valley all the way into Canada. Because of the unique periodic fevers, it was an easily recognized disease even in our early history. It is said that during the Civil War, malaria accounted for 1,316,000 episodes of illness and 10,000 deaths.

The British routinely used quinine from Chinchona bark as a prophylactic against malaria. The worldwide colonial holdings of the British were protected by their soldiers who constantly suffered from it. Because quinine has a very bitter taste, the British often would mix it with a little alcohol, giving rise to the acquired taste for “gin and tonic.”

If you like the taste of bitters, today you can buy over-the-counter tonic water, which contains a small amount of quinine in it.

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Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Mesa State College.


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