An absorbing chronicle of two related adventures: the 19th-century hunt by botanical explorers in the Andes for the cinchona tree, whose bark produces quinine, once the only effective treatment for malaria; and the contemporary quest by scientists in the laboratory to find a cure for this deadly disease.
British journalist Honigsbaum focuses on the stories of three men: Richard Spruce, a botanist who spent 15 years in the Amazon and Andes; Charles Ledger, a trader who made numerous expeditions through Peru, Bolivia, and Chile; and Sir Clements Markham, a historian attached to the India Office who coordinated several cinchona-seeking forays to South America in the 1860s. With malaria rampant in India and Africa, the British were desperate to secure a source of quinine. Their plan was to take cinchona seeds from South America and start cinchona plantations in India. Harsh geography, fearsome insects, head-hunting Indians, and political unrest made finding the seeds extraordinarily hazardous, and growing the trees in India posed an unexpectedly complex horticultural challenge. As matters worked out, the best seeds ended up in the hands of Dutch plantation owners in Java, which by 1937 supplied 97% of the world’s quinine. Honigsbaum, who traveled to South America to research the cinchona adventure, devotes most of his text to it, turning to the scientific search for a malaria cure only in the last three chapters. There, after a compressed but informative history, he considers the issues of increasing drug resistance, the resurgence of tropical diseases such as malaria because of global warming, the reluctance of profit-conscious pharmaceutical manufacturers to devote large sums of money to malaria research, and the problems facing the ongoing hunt for a vaccine.
Impressive research and good storytelling. (Maps, 16 pages b&w illustrations, not seen)