"Cinchona revolutionized the art of medicine as profoundly as gunpowder had the art of war."
-- Bernardino Ramazzini, Physician to the Duke of Modena, Opera omnia, medica, et physica, 1716
In the summer of 1623, ten cardinals and hundreds of their attendants died in Rome while electing a new pope. The Roman marsh fever that felled them was the scourge of the Mediterranean, northern Europe and even America.
Malaria, now known as a disease of the tropics, badly weakened the Roman Empire. It killed thousands of British troops fighting Napoleon in 1809 and many soldiers on both sides of the American Civil War. It turned back travelers exploring West Africa in the nineteenth century and brought the building of the Panama Canal to a standstill. Even today, malaria kills someone every thirty seconds. For more than one thousand years, there was no cure for it.
Pope Urban VIII, elected during the malarial summer of 1623, was determined that a cure should be found. He encouraged Jesuit priests establishing new missions in Asia and in South America to learn everything they could from the peoples they encountered. In Peru a young apothecarist named Agostino Salumbrino established an extensive network of pharmacies that kept the Jesuit missions in South America and Europe supplied with medicines. In 1631 Salumbrino dispatched a new miracle to Rome.
The cure was quinine, an alkaloid made of the bitter red bark of the cinchona tree. Europe's Protestants, among them Oliver Cromwell, who suffered badly from malaria, feared that the new cure was nothing but a Popish poison. More than any previous medicine, though, quinine forced physicians to change their ideas about illness. Before long, it would change the face of Western medicine.
Yet how was it that priests in the early seventeenth century–who did not know what malaria was or how it was transmitted–discovered that the bark of a tree that grew in the foothills of the Andes could cure a disease that occurred only on the other side of the ocean?
Using fresh research from the Vatican and the Indian archives in Seville, as well as documents she discovered in Peru, award-winning author Fiammetta Rocco chronicles the ravages of the disease; the quest of the three Englishmen who smuggled cinchona seeds out of South America; the way in which quinine opened the door to Western imperial adventure in Asia, Africa and beyond; and how, even today, quinine grown in the eastern Congo still saves the lives of so many suffering from malaria.
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Fiammetta Rocco was raised in Kenya. Her grandfather, her father and she herself all suffered from malaria. Ms. Rocco's investigative journalism has won a number of awards in the United States and in Britain. She lives in London, where she is the literary editor of the Economist. This is her first book.From Publishers Weekly:
Before the discovery of malaria's causes and treatments, the mosquito-borne illness was a killer that held sway over tropical countries and extended deadly tendrils into more northern climes. Born in Kenya, Rocco (literary editor at The Economist) was exposed to the disease at an early age. Four of the girls from her primary school class died of cerebral malaria before they turned 40, and she herself contracted the illness in her teens, a fact which may have spurred her desire to write this engaging history of malaria's most popular cure: quinine. Using anecdotes from her far-ranging research as a narrative hook, Rocco traces the history of quinine from its discovery in the 17th century by Jesuit missionaries in Peru to its use by expanding European colonial powers and its role in the development of modern anti-malaria pills. The priests learned of the bark of the cinchona tree, which was used by Andean natives to cure shivering, at a time when malaria, then known as Roman ague or marsh fever, was devastating southern Europe. The Jesuits eagerly began the distribution of the curative bark. It also helped European explorers and missionaries survive the disease as they entered new territories. Rocco's many descriptions of her travels and of her personal experiences with malaria keep her story interesting and immediate, and she stirs in enough science to explain the how malaria and its cure actually work, making this a good choice for fans of memoir and science history. 16-page b&w photo insert.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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