In March this year, US President Donald Trump, for reasons that have yet to be made clear or acquire scientific validity, began touting an anti-malaria drug, hydroxychloroquine, a synthetic form of quinine, as a remedy for COVID-19.
In April, in an effort to shed some light on the President’s comments, The Washington Post published an article sketching a history of quinine as a “fever cure”.
It describes how, around the world, various tonics and potions had been concocted containing “a medicine that had been around for centuries… from what the Peruvians called the ‘arbol de calenturas’, the ‘fever tree’.”
It also says quinine, at one time or another, was “thought to cure” everything from typhoid fever, yellow fever, measles, gout and toothaches to sore feet.
In 2003 the British Medical Journal reviewed a book titled The Miraculous Fever Tree: Malaria, Medicine and the Cure that Changed the World, by journalist Fiammetta Rocco.
The reviewer recounts some of the legends surrounding the discovery of “the miracle of the cinchona calisaya tree and its bark”, and “the arrival of quinine on the shores of Europe”, including how, after the death of Pope Gregory XV in the summer of 1623, “as the cardinals and their attendants gathered to elect his successor, many fell victim to the ‘mal aria’, or ‘bad air’, of Rome”.
In 2013 the Malaria Journal published the paper “Bad air, amulets and mosquitoes: 2000 years of changing perspectives on malaria”, in which the authors, Ernst Hempelmann and Kristine Krafts, explain how “for many centuries, scientists have debated the cause and best treatment of the disease now known as malaria”.
“Two theories regarding malaria transmission – that of ‘bad air’ and that of insect vectors – have been widely accepted at different times throughout history,” they say. “Treatments and cures have varied accordingly over time.”
The truth about malaria finally started coming into focus in 1897, Hempelmann and Krafts say, when British army surgeon Ronald Ross, working in Secunderabad, India, “became the first person to provide definitive proof that mosquitoes carried malaria”.
Ross was born in Almora, India, on 13 May 1857. His father was Sir CCG Ross, a general in the army. At age eight he was sent to England to be educated.
A biography of Ross published by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention says “he had no predisposition to medicine” but at 17 “he submitted to his father’s wish to see him enter the Indian Medical Service”, which he accomplished in 1881.
In 1892, Ross became interested in malaria, inspired and guided by the work of French doctor Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran and Scottish scientist Patrick Manson, who is often hailed as “the father of tropical medicine”.
On 20 August 1897 Ross made his “landmark discovery”, the CDC says. “While dissecting the stomach tissue of an anopheline mosquito fed four days previously on a malarious patient, he found the malaria parasite and went on to prove the role of Anopheles mosquitoes in the transmission of malaria parasites in humans.”
The World Health Organisation provides a detailed account of Ross’s “quest”.
“Recognising the relative simplicity of the research tools available to Ross, the observations made by him and his collaborators using simple brightfield microscopy were exceptional,” it says.
Ross published his findings in the British Medical Journal, in a paper titled “On some peculiar pigmented cells found in two mosquitoes fed on malarial blood”, on 18 December 1897.
In 1902 he became the first Briton to win the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine. He was knighted in 1911.
Sir Ronald died in London on 16 September 1932.
Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
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