Magazine article The Spectator

A Story of Bark and Bite

Magazine article The Spectator

A Story of Bark and Bite

Article excerpt

A story of bark and bite


by Fiammetta Rocco

HarperCollins, L16.99, pp. 352, ISBN 0002572028

This engrossing, beautifully crafted history is a parable for our times, I believe, underscoring the foolishness of men, with some rare exceptions, and the munificence of Nature. Malaria has been around since the dinosaurs. It existed in Britain up to the 1960s, in the vicinity of steam laundries apparently, until the onset of dry-cleaning. No other plague has altered the history of peoples to such a degree. Today Westerners consider it rarely, but it is a shameful truth that three million humans die of the disease annually, most of them poor African children. And as Fiammetta Rocco says, this tragedy is thanks to a mosquito carrier that is 'little larger than a single eyelash'.

Four centuries ago, the revelation that quinine cures malaria did for medicine what gunpowder did for warfare. Amazingly the story of how it happened, though shrouded in legend, has never fully been told until now, which qualifies Rocco's book as a scoop. From one of Kenya's most extraordinary European families, she also brings a personal touch to the story. She has had a 'go' of malaria, as have most of her family for generations. Her early memories, when at Lake Naivasha her Neapolitan grandfather cooked wonderful meals to reward the children for swallowing their bitter Nivaquine syrup, are among the finest passages of the book. She describes well how for those of us who live in the tropics the disease is a persistent, ghostly presence.

In the summers of 1620s Rome, popes and cardinals were dropping like flies thanks to the agues caused, they believed, by breathing the mal'aria of stinking marshes. Since antiquity Europeans had believed that the cure for fevers, or just about anything else, involved bleeding the patient and administering emetics. I can never understand why doctors at the time didn't realise that their methods were efficient only in killing people, but I suppose some would argue they're still at it today.

Quinine, extracted from the bitter bark of the cinchona tree, is indigenous to the Andes. The perplexing aspect of the malaria story has always been that until the discovery of the Americas, when the infection spread, malaria was an old-world disease. How was quinine discovered to be a cure? Even recently I reviewed a book that could not provide the answer. Rocco not only tracked down long-neglected papers in Lima to find the truth, she also slept in the archives over curfew during Peru's political upheavals.

Rocco tells how a Jesuit apothecary, Agustino Salumbrino, observed how Andean Indians used cinchona bark to stop shivering in the cold. He thought it might work for the shivering caused by fever, and so sent some to Rome. It was a pharmacological breakthrough that altered the course of medical history. For a while, the Protestants, Oliver Cromwell included, recoiled at the 'Jesuit powder', as if it were some sort of popish date-rape drug. That didn't stop a mountebank named Robert Talbor from peddling it in a potion that made him fabulously rich and caught the attention of Charles II and Louis XIV.

After the 17th century, when quinine was a 'totem to religious power', it became a subject of study. …

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