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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Cinchona and the Colonies




“What is it?” he asked weakly.
“It is called Peruvian bark, Mr. Lowe. It has been blended with wine to make it easier to ingest.”
             Excerpt from The Road to Deer Run

The character of Daniel Lowe in the above-mentioned book was fortunate that Widow Thomsen was familiar with effective medicinals. She knew that this drug—Peruvian bark or cinchona—would be an effective treatment for the terrible symptoms that malaria could cause.



The wonderful discovery of Peruvian bark was truly a Godsend to the American colonists. Otherwise known as cinchona, the bark of this South American tree contained quinine. When added to wine, the alcohol allowed the substance to leach into the drink, producing a medicine that would treat the fever and chills of malaria.

The marshy lowlands throughout the thirteen colonies, but especially in the South, were filled with malaria-carrying mosquitoes. With a quick and painful bite to humans, these insects could spread a parasite that caused the dreaded malaria. The mosquitos were no respecter of class, as both wealthy and poor suffered greatly from the fever, headache, and chills that returned on a regular basis to malaria victims. The only advantage that the wealthy had was their ability to purchase escape from the lowlands where the mosquitoes thrived during the worst of the summer months.

Although cold winters could kill off mosquitoes every year, the northern colonies were not exempt from the disease. There were outbreaks of malaria in Massachusetts in 1634, 1647, 1650, and 1668. In 1775, Congress allotted $300 for quinine to protect George Washington’s troops from malaria.

When Brigadier General John Glover escorted the British prisoners of war out of Saratoga, New York, in 1777, he suffered from a “mysterious illness,” which caused chills, headaches, dizziness, and nausea, followed by high fever. Although he took the medicinal quinine, these attacks—assumed to be malaria by a researcher—continued as new parasites continued to grow in his bloodstream.

Some of the thousands of British prisoners on this trek under Glover had already suffered as well from the mosquito-borne disease. Once you had malaria, it was usually your life-long, unwelcome companion.

The earliest journal accounts of the medicinal qualities of Peruvian bark date back to the late 1500’s. The use of the “fever tree” bark was introduced into European medicine by Jesuit missionaries who brought the cinchona compound back to Europe in the early 1600’s.


The name “cinchona” has its own unique history. In 1638, the Countess of Chinchon, wife of the Viceroy of Peru, was suffering from waves of fever and chills that threatened her life. In the Viceroyalty of Peru, the court physician was summoned to treat her but all his efforts failed. He decided to administer medicine that he had obtained from the local Quechua Indians, who had been using the bark of this tree to treat similar symptoms. The Countess survived and legend says that she brought the cinchona bark back with her to Europe in the 1640’s.

Rawhide bag for cinchona bark, brought from Peru in 1777


The story was so well known that in 1742, botanist and physician Carl Linnaeus decided to name the tree “cinchona.” Linnaeus held the belief that every plant should have a name.

In order to be prepared for medicinal use, the bark of the cinchona tree is stripped off, dried, and powdered before being added to wine. The bark is also called Jesuit’s bark or Peruvian bark. As with many herbs that were used in colonial times, excessive doses could prove deadly.

(Above photo of bag used by permission of the London Science Museum, Science & Society Picture Library) Click on "permission" to view site.









23 comments:

  1. Elaine, it is frightening to read how easily people could be infected with malaria with a quick mosquito bite. I remember being fascinated with all the medicinal herbs you mentioned and included in THE ROAD TO DEER RUN, which was a marvelous story, by the way! Great article, thank you.

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  2. Thanks so much, Lisa! I also find the use of herbs in colonial medicine fascinating, which prompted me to research as much as I could for this novel. Thank you for your kind comments and for stopping by! Blessings. :)

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  3. Like Lisa, I also enjoyed your references to medicinal herbs in THE ROAD TO DEER RUN. I enjoyed researching the old time cures, some of which are still used today. Thanks, Elaine, for such an interesting post.

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    1. You're so welcome, Janet! Yes, some of the herbs are still used but it's important to check them out with pharmacists before using, especially if someone is using other medications. There are some helpful books out there that offer well-researched data on the safety of herbs. One that I have is called "Herbal Therapy and Supplements" by Merrily Kuhn and David Winston. Very thorough. Thanks for stopping by!

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  4. What a wonderful explanation of malaria and the way the colonists treated it! I now have a better understanding of the disease. It's incredible to me how people learned to use plants to treat diseases during earlier times. Many of those same plants are still used in modern medications. Thanks, Elaine.

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    1. Thanks so much, Cynthia! Colonial medicine is a fascinating topic and one I will never understand completely. It took a lot of faith in the person dosing from the apothecary to trust in the remedy being given. A frightening time in that regard!

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  5. Elaine, great article on its history. I used it in a scene in a book set in 1794, near the Great Dismal Swamp. But since this is one word I have read many times but never heard spoken, how do you pronounce "cinchona"?

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    1. It is pronounced: "chin-chone'" with a long "o" sound on the final syllable. :) Great question!

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    2. I'm so glad I asked. I've had it wrong all these years. I was reading it as sin-CHO-nah.

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    3. I was too, Lori! I had to get an audible dictionary to get the correct pronunciation. I love the Spanish flavor to the word!

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  6. Great post, Elaine. Sounds like you really needed to know the correct dose amount, or it could kill the person. Makes me very grateful for modern medicine. :)
    I need to try to get a hold of a copy of The Road To Deer Run. I've heard great things about it.
    Have a great day and God bless.

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    1. Thank you, Debbie! Yes, the dose could cure you or kill you. And add to that the blood-letting so common in Colonial times...it's a wonder anyone survived. I am ALSO very grateful for modern medicine, as imperfect as it is. Hope you enjoy "The Road to Deer Run!" Thanks for stopping by.

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  7. Thanks for this post! I's very interesting and helpful to a reader/writer. :)

    Whitney

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    1. Thank you, Whitney, and so pleased that it was helpful!

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  8. I'm popping in to add the wildflower we call SWEET ANNIE. It was also used for malaria and now, in fact, is being tested by drug companies. Sweet Annie is a very florescent head with a sweet (duh) smell but spreads like crazy with all those seeds. (It was used in the Genesee Valley of NY where swampland near the lake bred many mosquitoes)

    I've been taking herbalist classes. We really do have the medicines we need in nature and eating the right way in the first place prevents or reduces many problems.

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    1. Debra, I've never heard of Sweet Annie, so that's another herb I need to research. Thank you!

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    2. So interesting, Debra! That is in my Herbal Therapy & Supplements book by Kuhn and Winston and is, indeed, anti-malarial along with several other uses. It is especially useful for quinine-resistant strains of malaria. There are several guidelines to its use to prevent problems (such as excessive doses causing hepatitis) so I encourage everyone who likes to use herbs to become acquainted with safe doses. Thanks so much for this additional info, Debra! And your herbalist classes sound wonderful!

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  9. Outstanding article, Elaine! I've heard of cinchona, but the details you share are very helpful and are going into my research file! This blog is really a great resource for research!

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    1. Thanks so much, Joan! Isn't it wonderful that we can all share our research together? I know I appreciate everyone's contributions to this blog. Thanks for stopping by!

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  10. Good post, Elaine. Full of useful information. Thanks for your research.

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    1. You're very welcome, Susan! I appreciate all the research that you do. Thanks for stopping by. :)

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  11. What interesting details. My grandmother had malaria when she worked her cotton fields in the swamplands of Greece.

    Blessings
    Dotti xx

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    1. Hi Dotti! I hope your grandmother had some remedy to help her. How distressing! And I never imagined the climate of Greece being a haven for mosquitoes. I am always learning something new. :) Thanks so much for stopping by!

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