Quinine has been used as a cure for malaria since the 17th century. It was only later in the 1940s that other drugs replaced it. Discover how the medicinal properties of this wonder drug were discovered.
What is Quinine?
Though most of us have heard of quinine, few come across it in our daily lives. Quinine is a white naturally occurring alkaloid (compound containing nitrogen) in a crystalline form. We get Quinine from the bark of the cinchona tree, a tree that is found in Andes mountains in South America. No other tree naturally produces this compound. The bark of this tree is removed in strips. This is then dried and powdered to use for its medicinal properties.
Quinine and Malaria
It was the South American Indians who were the first to use the bark of the cinchona tree as a cure for Malaria. The Indians even used the drug as a muscle relaxant to cure uncontrollable shivers due to the low temperatures. Since quinine has a bitter taste, the Indians mixed it with sweet water.
When the Spanish conquistadors landed in Peru they learned of this miracle drug and spread the news of its discovery. In 1631 it was used in Rome to cure the city which was endemic due to the marshes and swamps that surrounded it. By 1633 Jesuit priests had documented the use of this ‘Peruvian bark’ as a cure for Malaria. It was these priests who became the primary exporters and importers of the bark. When Charles IInd was cured of Malaria at the end of the 17th Century it became popular in London.
When King Charles IInd was cured of Malaria at the end of the 17th Century, quinine became popular in London.
Alternates to quinine
Due to excessive bark stripping, and destruction of the quinine tree, there were not enough trees to go around. It was critical to develop a synthetic alternative to this wonder drug. In 1944 two American chemists R.B. Woodward and W.E. Doering created an artificial synthesis of quinine.
Though there have been a number of artificial syntheses since then, none have been as economically viable to process as compared to the natural quinine. However as of 2006, an alternative to quinine called Artemisinin has become the preferred treatment for Malaria. This drug was derived from a herb used in traditional Chinese medicine. It is interesting to know that the first quinine testing lead to the birth of the field of homeopathy.