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"Jesuit’s Powder" or Cinchona and Colonialism

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Dr. Thomas Willis, frontispiece portrait, drawn and engraved by D. Loggan, 1679.

This summer, as you sit down to your refreshing gin and tonic, consider that your drink is the vestige of a major international political-religious conflict dating from the seventeenth century and focusing on medical treatment.

Legend says that the Countess of Cinchon, wife of the Spanish Viceroy of Peru, fell ill to a serious malarial fever in 1638. Native Incan herbalists knew of the healing properties of the “fever tree” but it was not widely known, even in the New World. Upon receiving treatment of the ground bark of what would become known as the Cinchona tree, the Countess recovered and became the philanthropic promoter of the eponymous drug which combated fevers in both hemispheres for the next 300 years.

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Cinchona, from Medical Botany, R. Egglesfeld Griffith, MD, Lea & Blanchard, Philadelphia, 1847.

More recent scholarship of the discovery of cinchona (or quinine) eliminates the story of the Countess, as evidence points only to the Count’s return to Madrid with a large cargo of fever tree bark in his ships’ holds.

Although physicians published analyses of various herbs and natural products from the Spanish colonies, cinchona bark was not among them. The medical profession dismissed the anti-fever remedy, preferring to bleed their patients. The missionaries of the religious order, the Society of Jesus, studied the wonder drug's properties from a pragmatic viewpoint. The Jesuits wanted to keep newly-made Christians alive in the malarial tropics. With the Pope’s endorsement, the bark was exported and by the 1650s was a common treatment in Rome, and later in most Catholic nations. “Jesuit’s powder,” although effective for many types of agues, faced stiff resistance. (The bark did relieve fever but only killed some of the malaria parasites in the body, subjecting the patient to “remitting” or recurring fever.) Protestant countries such as England had a deep suspicion of all popish plots and Catholic cabals. The first English author to write on cinchona was Thomas Willis, who in 1679 asserted that it did not cure the fever but was a highly effective palliative.

Dr. Willis (1621-1675) was a leading researcher in the new science of medicine and has numerous discoveries named after him (Willis' Disease I and II, Willis' Glands, Willis’ Nerve, Willis’ Cord, etc.). A prodigious author, he was the first to describe nervous diseases, noting that hysteria was not a disease originating in the uterus, as believed by the ancients, but was cerebral. The first great English work on pharmacology, his Pharmaceutice rationalis is also one of the great books of medicine. The Archives and Special Collections at Thomas Jefferson University holds two first editions of this work. On the flyleaves of one copy are handwritten poems in what an expert from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. identifies as early 18th century script. Although the scholar could not find citations for the several manuscript poems in compiled printed sources, one of them is appropriate to the book's text and is titled: “An Enigma of Jesuit’s Powder/ January [16]94”

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Quinine and Quinidine Formulary, Cinchona Products Institute, Inc., New York, [1950?]
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Willis’ Pharmaceutice rationalis title page and verso manuscript, London, 1679.

A heretofore unpublished transcription appears below:

Tho by noble Atchievm’ts I’ve purchas’d Renown
Yet my Birth is obscurd, & my true Name scarce known
To relieve the afflicted I left my owne home
Yet am lov’d but by few & even hated by some
I was 1st entertain’d when to Europe I came
By an infamous Crew who gave me theire Name
Which to my Misfortune does stick by me still
Tho my worke is to save, as theirs is to kill
By nature I’m rough, & more gratifi’d since
Yet e’vn to ffo’s my kind Aide I dispence
With [?] Broils when the State is opprest
And [?] with a Poysonous form possest,
Disdaining the Curb of legitimate sway
By fitts overturnd all that com’s in theire Way
When the wisest heads rant & the stout’st Hearts ake
The whole fabrick appeareing to totter & shake
While its firmest supports most dreadfully quake
I finish the War w/out strikeing a Blow
And establish soft peace, tho none can tell how
Tho I seldom am foil’d, & not often withstood
Ere I fight, I am beaten, & wallow in Blood:/

This brings us back to gin and tonics. In 1820, French chemists isolated quinine from the bark and production coincided with the European age of colonial expansion. By the beginning of the 19th century the tree, on the verge of extinction, was being over-harvested and protected by the Peruvian government as a unique revenue source. The Dutch smuggled a bag of cinchona tree seeds from Peru in 1865 and planted 12,000 trees in their colony in Java. This saved the species and supplied the commercial health needs of a shifting world. Quinine was added to carbonated water and was called “tonic water.” To make the bitter taste of quinine palatable, the British “raj” in colonial India mixed it with plenty of gin and a bit of lime. To this day, tonic water has a vestige of quinine in it (20mg per 6 fl. oz,), but not enough to save you from malaria or ague.



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