Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Quinine: Malaria and the Quest for a Cure that Changed the World by Fiammetta Rocco

Books Completed: 23
Completion Date: February 10, 2007
Publication Year: 2003
Pages: 368
Purchased in 2007
"Cinchona revolutionized the art of medicine as profoundly as gunpowder had the art of war."
-- Bernardino Ramazzini, Physician to the Duke of Modena, Opera omnia, medica, et physica, 1716

In the summer of 1623, ten cardinals and hundreds of their attendants died in Rome while electing a new pope. The Roman marsh fever that felled them was the scourge of the Mediterranean, northern Europe and even America.

Malaria, now known as a disease of the tropics, badly weakened the Roman Empire. It killed thousands of British troops fighting Napoleon in 1809 and many soldiers on both sides of the American Civil War. It turned back travelers exploring West Africa in the nineteenth century and brought the building of the Panama Canal to a standstill. Even today, malaria kills someone every thirty seconds. For more than one thousand years, there was no cure for it.

Pope Urban VIII, elected during the malarial summer of 1623, was determined that a cure should be found. He encouraged Jesuit priests establishing new missions in Asia and in South America to learn everything they could from the peoples they encountered. In Peru a young apothecarist named Agostino Salumbrino established an extensive network of pharmacies that kept the Jesuit missions in South America and Europe supplied with medicines. In 1631 Salumbrino dispatched a new miracle to Rome.

The cure was quinine, an alkaloid made of the bitter red bark of the cinchona tree. Europe's Protestants, among them Oliver Cromwell, who suffered badly from malaria, feared that the new cure was nothing but a Popish poison. More than any previous medicine, though, quinine forced physicians to change their ideas about illness. Before long, it would change the face of Western medicine.

Yet how was it that priests in the early seventeenth century–who did not know what malaria was or how it was transmitted–discovered that the bark of a tree that grew in the foothills of the Andes could cure a disease that occurred only on the other side of the ocean?

Using fresh research from the Vatican and the Indian archives in Seville, as well as documents she discovered in Peru, award-winning author Fiammetta Rocco chronicles the ravages of the disease; the quest of the three Englishmen who smuggled cinchona seeds out of South America; the way in which quinine opened the door to Western imperial adventure in Asia, Africa and beyond; and how, even today, quinine grown in the eastern Congo still saves the lives of so many suffering from malaria.
I had to read this non-fiction book for one of my classes at school, and I was actually surprisingly interested in the book! That rarely happens, I have to admit. Anyways, it was an interesting look at the search for the cure for malaria. I am going to have to say that there were some parts of the book that bored me to death. I mean, the woman tells all the people the popes that came down with malaria during a certain period of time. I do not care. I do not know who these people are. (Well, bishops and things too, not just the popes). I thought there was much too much time spent on names.

I mean, it was supposed to be about the history of malaria, and it does do that, and the names of the people that played a part in the hunt are important, but this woman talks about everyone. It just got to be a lot of names.
Truly, though, I enjoyed this book. It was very interesting, and it was full of history and interesting facts that tied in with the discovery of quinine. It was not a book that I would have picked up on my own, not being particularly interested in the subject matter, but it was still very well written and captured my attention. I have to admit, though, that I knew nothing going in, so to say how truthful this account is and if she is honestly retelling the facts is beyond me. I know that it is hard to write about things of this nature sometimes because there are not always written documents from the earlier time periods. One interesting thing in the book was the first gin and tonic was to match the taste of quinine. I found that interesting… if totally irrelevant to most other things.

So, overall, an interesting read. I am glad I read it, it was a new path that I have never gone down before. If you ever find yourself interested in this topic or something related to it, I suggest this book.


This is my first time reading this author, but I might look into other books by her because she has a nice writing style.

Authors Gender:
Female: 22
Male: 1


  1. Hey Kel! Sorry I've been absent the last few weeks. With work, my mom getting sick, then my daughter and finally all of us, I've barely even had time to update my own blog...let alone email and read everyone else's!! I didn't even get a chance to post a short review of The Book Thief until yesterday...and I finished it about 10 days ago. I have lots of updating to do!!

    That being said, I'm almost done (3/4's) with American Gods. What do you think? Right now, I'm pretty much digging Gaiman! I'll send a quick email when I'm done...hopefully in the next day or 2.

    By the way....are you making a concerted effort to only read female authors this year??? Email me!

  2. Interesting!

    I still can't get over how many books you've read in 2007!

  3. Anonymous7:44 PM

    Thanks -- this was useful. A person I interviewed on my blog mentioned her work and I thought I would look into it more.

  4. Anonymous7:45 PM

    p.s. my site is Cooking with Ideas at http://www.cookingwithideas.typepad.com


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I am so sorry, but I turned anonymous commenting off. I have had it from the very beginning, but that is how the spam is getting by my spam filter at the moment. If it is a big deal I will turn it back on and moderate all comments. I also changed moderation from older than 14 days to older than 7.