A seasoned, filigreed history of malaria and its treatment.
Malaria is still one of the great scourges, turning the blood to sludge, blackening the liver and spleen: “Malaria is so common, and so deadly, that the WHO estimates one person dies of it every fifteen seconds. . . . Yet the mosquito that carries it is little larger than an eyelash.” Economist literary editor Rocco describes—in fine writing that speaks both of personal experience and well-edited research—the nature of the disease, its spread from place to place, how two missionaries working in Peru learned of the bark that cured the shivering disease, how seedlings were smuggled out of the country to a British plantation in the Nilgiri Hills of southwest India, and how the European pharmacopoeia evolved, with its tapping of drugs and chemicals from colonial and missionary outposts. But what keeps the engine of the narrative moving is the ever-present understanding that “political rivalry, religious pressure, scientific one-upmanship and petty human jealousy all had a part to play in the quest for the magical tree that produced the Jesuit powder that cured the ague.” Rocco is an adept in the medical detective story, in the tradition of Berton Rouché, detailing the work of Ronald Ross, Patrick Manson, and W.G. MacCullum as they seek to unravel the source of the parasite. Then there is the subtext, which Rocco exploits with care, that malaria served as a brake to colonialism, proselytism, and their fellow traveler, war: that commerce and religion would not be able to level all in their path. This is also a cautionary tale on the pillage of natural resources, nurtured by the Jesuits, then heedlessly harvested by bark hunters.
Snappy and sharp, picaresque but scholarly: it’s almost a crime that so heinous a disease should be treated to so grand a biography. (16-page b&w photo insert, not seen)