It was a pleasure to host the Manchester Branch of the Catholic Medical Association a couple of nights ago for their AGM.  They asked me if I would address them, so I decided to tell them the story of the discovery and promotion of  ‘Quinine’ as an anti-malarial treatment by the Jesuits in South America.  As I prepared it, it only takes 10 mins to put up on the blog.

Jesuit Bark 

Cinchona officinalis, Rubiaceae, Quinine Bark,...

Cinchona officinalis, Rubiaceae, Quinine Bark, bark. Français : Écorces de quinquina (Cinchona officinalis, Rubiacées). Studioaufnahme, daher nicht georeferenziert (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The story begins between 1620 and 1630 when a Spanish Jesuit was cured from an attack of malaria, through the treatment of the indigenous Indians who ground the bark of a tree from the Rubiaceae (coffee) family.  In 1630, the Countess of Chinchon,  wife of the new viceroy, who had just arrived from Europe, was taken ill with malaria at Lima. The countess was saved from death by the Jesuits, and in thanksgiving caused large quantities of the bark to be collected.  The trees have sinced be named after her (genus Cinchona) and its main active principle, quinine, is now chemically synthesized. The term quinine comes from ghina, or quina-quina, the name given by Peruvian Indians to the bark, meaning medicine of medicines or bark of barks. The physician Sebastiano Bado declared that this bark had proved more precious to mankind than all the gold and silver that the Spaniards had obtained from South America.  It’s value was confirmed when a large amount of “Peruvian Bark” was captured by the English pirate Basil Ringrose, also known as “The Gentleman Pirate”, noting at the time that “the Spaniards had a monopoly on its production”.

The earliest transportation of the bark to Europe was through the Jesuit Barnabé de Cobo who brought the bark from Lima to Spain, and afterwards to Rome and other parts of Italy, in 1632. The bark was disseminated  from Rome throughout Europe by means of the Jesuits. In 1646, 1650, and 1652 the delegates to the eighth, ninth, and tenth general congregations returned to their homes, taking it with them, and at the same time there is evidence of its use in the Jesuit colleges at Genoa, Lyon, Leuven, Ratisbon, etc. Some high profile cures at the hands of Jesuits increased it fame and usage e.g. in France there is an alleged cure of the young Louis XIV, when still dauphin, effected by Father Tafur by means of Peruvian bark, it even reached the courts of Peking in China and Kyoto in Japan, where Jesuits cured the emperor by its means.  The remedy soon reached England. The English weekly Mercurius Politicus in 1658 contained in four numbers the announcement that: “The excellent powder known by the name of ‘Jesuit’s powder‘ may be obtained from several London chemists”.

In the 18th century, the Italian professor of medicine Ramazzini said that the introduction of Jesuit bark would be of the same importance to medicine that the discovery of gunpowder was to the art of war, an opinion endorsed by contemporary writers on the history of medicine. Dissension, however, was rife at the time and Alexander von Humboldt said, “It almost goes without saying that among Protestant physicians hatred of the Jesuits and religious intolerance lie at the bottom of the long conflict over the good or harm effected by Peruvian Bark”.  A good reminder of the politics that often gets in the way of science and how sectarianism can cause so much damage.