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Caventou and Pellier discovering quinine, c. 1820.

Caventou and Pellier discovering quinine, c. 1820.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

Quinine is the active ingredient in cinchona, a plant found in Peru. Spanish colonisers learned about an indigenous plant which Linnaeus named ‘cinchona’ in honour of the Spanish viceroy's wife, who had reportedly been cured from malaria by the plant.

Quinine was an effective treatment against malaria, and is probably the most important example of the role of colonialism in the global distribution of a drug. Malaria had been endemic in many parts of Europe since ancient times, and there was no known cure until the introduction of cinchona in the 1500s. Cinchona was popularised in Europe by the Jesuit cardinal Juan de Lugo, and became known as ‘Peruvian bark’ or ‘Jesuits' bark’.

In 1820, French chemists Joseph Bienaimé Caventou (1795-1877) and Pierre-Joseph Pelletier (1788-1842) isolated the active ingredient quinine from the plant, which enabled the industrial production of the drug. Supplies of quinine were particularly important for European armies and colonies - to protect soldiers and colonists from the devastating disease. The British made many efforts to manufacture quinine, so they would not need to rely on being able to acquire the cinchona plant.

The explorer Clements Robert Markham (1830-1916) developed a new form of box which enabled the transportation of living plants from South America to Kew Gardens, and on to India. Since the development of synthetic chemistry in the 1800s chemists sought to produce artificial equivalents of quinine, and in the 1900s several were found.

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D Greenwood, ‘The quinine connection’, Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, 30 (1992), pp 417-427