Here's How a Malaria Cure Turned Into Your Gin and Tonic

If you look back on human history, you'll find some empires are founded on religious fanaticism, some on an abundance of natural resources, and some on an insatiable hunger for tea and spices. But there's one plant that was at the center of multiple empires all around the world. It's called the cinchona, and these days you're more likely to encounter it with gin and a wedge of lime.

Barking Up the Right Tree

When the Spanish began pouring into the Americas in the 15th and 16th century, they brought more than guns and horses. They also brought malaria, which was unknown in this half of the world up until that point. Sometimes called ague, the disease marked by deadly fevers and uncontrollable shivering was a blight on the European population, felling popes, kings, and commoners alike. And there wasn't a cure — or at least, not a reliable one. Medieval doctors might try bloodletting, purging, or even consulting astronomical charts, since the cyclical nature of the disease was believed to be linked to the stars. But even before malaria began spreading in the Americas, the Quechua peoples of the Andes were using a natural cure for fevers: the bark of the kina tree. Spanish colonizers noticed that the bark helped to cure non-malarial fevers, and tried it out. From that moment up until the mid-20th century, kina became the only known cure for malaria. The renowned taxonomist Carl Linnaeus dubbed the tree "cinchona," but its ground bark retained the air of its Quechua word with the name "quinine."

Quinine made its way back to Europe, although its import via missionaries earned the medicine the nickname "Jesuit powder," a somewhat disreputable name to carry in Protestant countries. But the bark was simply too effective at treating fever and curing malaria to be ignored. As time went on and Spanish invaders seized more of the Americas for themselves, they also began tightly regulating their control over quinine, for anyone who could control the spread of malaria would have a distinct upper hand as more and more European nations set out to slice up their own serving of the world.

In 1778, Spain forbade the export of quinine from its territories under penalty of death. Still, British and Dutch colonists were able to smuggle out plants and began growing their own forests of cinchona in India and elsewhere. Even as the age of exploration faded and the great multi-continental empires cracked and crumbled, revolutionary icons relied on the plant. Simón Bolívar even incorporated it into Peru's coat of arms.

A Summery Sip

Quinine remained the only effective treatment for malaria for a few hundred years; only in the 1940s did more effective synthetic solutions become available. But in the centuries that it was heavily in use, people developed certain strategies for masking the bark's bitter, unpleasant taste. Most of those strategies involved alcohol.

Quinquina is an aperitif wine made with a mix of herbs and spices, including quinine, and is the vital ingredient in James Bond's second–most favorite beverage, the Vesper. But in England, the most popular way to take the medicine was a carbonated mixture of quinine, sugar, and water — today known as tonic. The same stuff that was once a matter of life and death for colonizers around the world is today served with gin and lime in a highball glass. We have to admit, there are worse ways to keep yourself healthy.

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Ever wonder how else plants shaped the course of human history? You might start wondering by the end of Michael Pollan's "Botany of Desire." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas December 20, 2018

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