The Quinine Tree
I was three years old when my dad came home from World War II. I did not know him and he did not know me, so there was no instant bonding. He had spent his years of military service in the Philippine Islands, and it took a long time for the beat of those distant war drums to leave him, if they truly ever did. During the war, as American troops fought their way from island to island across the South Pacific, they faced more than a human enemy. Their other foe lay in wait in the tropical jungle. That foe was the microscopic protozoan that, when injected into a human through the needle-fine proboscis of a mosquito, causes malaria.
Malaria is one of those illnesses that can recur in patients, not often, and with shorter duration than the original bout, but it did recur. My dad seemed to have short returns of the disease during warm weather. Not a lot was understood about malaria at the time, but the doctor in our small town would come to our home to treat Dad with a whitish powder that the adults called "quinine". It was the only thing that would ease Dad's bouts with fever and chills that ran right along with muscle cramps. It seemed to me that he was in agony during those weeks, and my mother was obviously very upset.
Time passed, and I began my mountain treks with my great Aunt Bett. She could make treatments from plants for so many illnesses, I began to wonder why she did not make something to treat my dad. I watched her and my Granny Ninna plant seeds, and I knew that medicinal plants grew from those seeds. I asked her one day why she didn't have a plant that would cure him of those terrible weeks that he continued to spend with malaria. She told me that the treatment for malaria came from the quinine tree, and it didn't grow in the mountains of southeast Kentucky. My mind began to ponder that problem, and before very long, I had a plan.
I knew nothing about zones, of course, and it didn't occur to me that the tree would not grow in Kentucky because of the climate. As it is for most children, my mind had no boundaries or limitations, I was determined to plant a quinine tree for my dad. Aunt Bett had only told me that the cure came from the tree, she did not tell me that it came only from the tree's bark.
At the time of the war, quinine trees were cultivated largely on the Indonesian island of Java. But Java was in enemy hands in the early '40s, and little quinine was available for the U.S. troops. Java was not the original home of these tall, broad leaved evergreens, with their fragrant clusters of small reddish flowers. In the early 17th century the curative powers of the bark had been discovered by Spanish priests in South America's Andes mountains. It was there in rain forests that all the Cinchona species thrived. Among those species, Cinchonia pubescens seemed to have the most effective bark with which to treat malaria.
Before very long, all of Europe was aware of the "fever tree" because not only did its powdered bark cure malaria, but it also lowered all fevers. Still, most physicians were reluctant to use the new medicine because it was being promoted by Jesuit priests, who were not particularly liked or trusted across Europe at that time. Because of that problem, the death toll from malaria rose sharply. Finally, as most often happens, need overcame prejudice and by the end of the 17th century, powdered cinchona bark was being used around the world to treat malaria. In the early 1800's, two French scientists identified the substance in the bark that cures malaria. It was an alkaloid that they called quinine, after "quina", the native Indian word for bark. Other alkaloids have since been identified in cinchona bark.
By the 19th century, the demand for the bark was so great that the trees were almost eliminated from South America. Many nations attempted to cultivate various species of the quinine trees in tropical areas that they controlled. The Dutch turned out to be the most successful, and the place they chose was Java. Today, most of the world's quinine supply comes from central Africa, Indonesia, and South America, where the tree has been reestablished. In today's herbal medicine in the United States, quinine bark is used as a tonic and digestive aid, to reduce heart palpitations, and normalize heart functions. It is also used to treat leg cramps, headaches, and flu symptoms.
By 1944 scientists were able to synthesize the quinine alkaloid in the laboratory. This led to various patented quinine drugs which were manufactured by several pharmaceutical companies. I knew none of this at the time when my dad was sick when I was growing up. I only knew that we needed a quinine tree in our yard, so that Aunt Bett could make the medicine that he so badly needed.
The medicine the doctor gave Dad came in powder form and it was in a very small white envelope that had lines on one side where the doctor wrote directions for taking it. There were often some grains of powder left in each envelope. One summer after a particularly bad bout with malaria, my job was to collect the trash from each room of my home, so when I came to the trash can in Mom and Dad's bedroom, I saw the small white quinine envelopes. I took care of the trash, but I kept the empty medicine packets. I tore them open and collected every bit of powder that was left in them. I put those grains all together into one envelope until it seemed to me that there was enough powder for me to proceed with my plan.
I took the powder outside to a bare spot on the hillside, not too far from the back porch. I dug a little hole and I "planted" the leftover powder, I watered it well. For several days I checked on my little bare spot of ground, and watered it some more. After a couple of weeks when nothing appeared to grow from the bare spot, I felt I had to ask Aunt Bett about it.
I explained to her what I had done, and what I was trying to do. I assured her that I only used what was leftover in the little packets, and that I had not used any of the medicine that was not already in the trash can. Somehow, I remember being more worried that someone might think I was stealing than about anything else. She gave me my first lesson in pharmacology and perhaps in other things. This is what she said: "Man can make medicine out of the tree that the Creator gives us, but only the Creator can make that tree grow in these here mountains."
I think I learned that lesson well. My dad continued to have recurrences of malaria all his life. I doubt the sounds of the distant war drums ever left him.
Magic and Medicine of Plants, the Reader's Digest, 1986 p.385
Both photos are from Wikipedia's Public Domain