The Quinine Quest


Sometimes only point of view differentiates a hero from a villain. Prometheus blessed humankind with the gift of fire, but the gods considered him a thief.

Richard Spruce, Charles Ledger, and Sir Clements Markham also bequeathed a stolen gift to humankind. These 19th-century botanists roamed Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela (often under false pretense) acquiring and exporting to British India and the Dutch Indies arguably the most valuable medicinal plant ever, the quinine-producing cinchona tree—the cure for malaria. While scientists credit them for making quinine widely and inexpensively available, ethicists question what they—and other drug researchers—paid indigenous people for their medical patrimony.

Journalist Mark Honigsbaum weaves this and other controversies through his meticulous account of the quest for quinine. He scoured diaries and documents, trudged across the Andes, and subjected himself to Amazon mosquitoes during research for his book. As a result, his writing is sincere, his characters speak for themselves, and his story bursts with facts.

Cinchona is native to the cloud forests of the Andes. Obtaining the tree’s bark, whose anti-malarial properties first attracted Europeans in the mid 1600s, proved daunting. Explorers visiting the area would cross oceans and mountains. And “along the way, they would have to deal with stubborn mules, truculent and untrustworthy guides, and the ever present threat of death from malnutrition, snakebites, and head-hunting Indians.”

But the botanists’ story sometimes borders on arcane. The names of minor characters suddenly vanish from the story line, only to reappear much later. The scientific name of a species mingles with English and often several Spanish variations, confusing the reader. One section focuses on a “tale of two seeds: Spruce’s Cinchona succirubra and Mamani’s C. calisaya,” and another relates Ledger’s misadventures trying to export a “herd of 619 alpacas, llamas, vicuñas, and crossbreeds” to Australia. Such minutiae lend the book authority at the price of readability.

The book speeds up in chapter 11, as Honigsbaum tackles, in plain English, modern synthetic treatments and a possible DNA-based vaccine. Malaria infects 300 million to 500 million people per year, primarily in the developing world, killing 1.5 million to 2.7 million of them. Honigsbaum outlines the case for further malaria research, but hesitates to state who—drug companies, governments, or philanthropists—he thinks should be doing it.

Honigsbaum offers much to ponder about how the first world should be dealing with a serious disease like malaria, if only he didn’t get snagged in the branches of botanical esoterica.

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