|The tomb of Willam Graham McIvor in the |
St Stephen's Church cemetery in Ooty.
The story of quinine in India is an interesting one and has some surprising connections to ornithology in India that I was exploring recently on a visit to the Nilgiris.
The story behind malaria, cinchona and quinine is so fascinating that the sheer number of publications on the history of cinchona is staggering (there are several bibliographic compilations on the topic!). Looking at the literature for India suggests that vast changes in landscape have been caused just so that people (at least the ones that did not have sickle cells and other forms of evolved resistance to malaria) could enter new regions and they further altered these habitat by building roads and habitations. "Malarious" regions were probably large pockets of natural protection for biodiversity. Malaria literally means bad air and the theory was that diseases were spread by miasmas (gases or mists) and this partly justified the idea of treating higher elevations as safe sanataria. There was even the field of "medical topography" that dealt with spatial distribution of disease and although they might have erred on causal factors, the practitioners did work on actual evidence. The sheer number of people involved in researching and fighting the problem (often dying in the process) of diseases (particularly malaria, plague and cholera) and the spin-offs to the sciences of botany, entomology, chemistry and oddly ornithology is just incredible. Scientific pursuits that saved human lives earned a halo of nobility. Seen in this light, the public repute of the modern botanist is sadly a lot lower than it was before.
The cinchona introduction program was part of a solution to a problem coming in the way of the colonial quest for conquering more lands. The Spanish had discovered the effectiveness of Cinchona bark in curing malarial fever and their extraction of the bark led to near complete destruction of trees in some regions and then the British Empire saw the problem of being dependent on dwindling South American supplies.
|Detail on the tomb of McIvor with Cinchona carvings|
Clements Markham is the man who takes a lot of credit for the cinchona program in India. He was knighted for this achievement but the idea that cinchona could be grown in the Nilgiris was first floated by John Forbes Royle.
Markham, a chronicler, explorer, geographer and writer also attempted to bring back the spelling Chinchona to correctly reflect its etymology - the plant is named after Lady Ana de Osorio, countess of Chinchón, wife of the Viceroy of Peru, who was in 1638 afflicted with a "tertian" fever while in Lima. Don Francisco Lopez de Canizares, heard of her illness and sent a parcel of bark that was used by the natives around Quito. The Countess recovered rather miraculously and word of the drug travelled rapidly. She took bank bark to Spain to distribute among the sick there and it soon came to be known as Pulvis Comitissae (the Countess' powder) among the druggists. Linnaeus came to hear of the plant via the French and though he intended to name the genus after the Countess, he spelt it wrong (in the 1767 edition it even got printed as "Cinhona"). The Spanish botanists Ruiz Lopez and José Antonio Pavón Jiménez noted the spelling mistake and described several species in the genus but the spelling stuck and many were upset that it credited "cinchon", a policeman's belt, instead of their dear Countess. Markham's attempts at taxonomic emendation of the spelling were not as successful as his mission to introduce cinchona into India.
|Markham's map of the "Chinchona" plantations.|
|An illustration from 1862. The European man sitting in the group in this picture is Sir William Denison (after whom Francis Day named the pretty fish - "Miss Kerala" (Sahyadria denisonii). To Denison's left and holding a spade is McIvor.|
|Davison could speak Tamil, "Burmese", |
Malay and Hindi!
The cinchona project was obviously not a complete success as malaria managed to keep a grip (as still does today with the potential to save some wilderness areas) and the next big wave of work on the disease was by the surgeons and physicians of the Indian Medical Service. Many of them, with a completely new and higher level of training in biology, contributed to the study of natural curiosities and contributed beyond their professional area of research.
The cinchona project had its impact well beyond India - even in its ornithology spin-offs. Imagine my surprise when I found that a comprehensive bibliography of cinchona cultivation was compiled in 1945 by R.E. Moreau, the brilliant ornithologist who worked in Africa as an accountant.
Note: Please note that tonic water today does not have the quinine levels needed for therapeutic use, so no it is not beneficial to your health! You can however have some fun by shining ultraviolet light on tonic-water and watch it fluoresce.
- Bibliography on Cinchona (Kew)
- A short history
- Malaria treatments
- Moreau, R. E. 1945 An annotated bibliography of cinchona-growing from 1883-1943. Nairobi: Government Printer
- Tan, Kevin Y.L. (2015). Of Whales and Dinosaurs: The Story of Singapore's Natural History Museum. Singapore: NUS Press.
- Veale, Lucy (2010) An historical geography of the Nilgiri cinchona plantations, 1860-1900. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.