The quinine-containing bark of the Cinchona tree is probably the most valuable drug the Americas gave the world
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Cinchona or Quina is a genus of about 38 species in the family Rubiaceae, native to the tropical Andes forests of western South America. They are medicinal plants, known as sources for quinine and other compounds.
The name of the genus is due to Carolus “Carl” Linnaeus, who named the tree in 1742 after a Countess of Chinchón, the wife of a viceroy of Peru, who, in 1638, was introduced by native Quechua healers to the medicinal properties of cinchona bark. Stories of the medicinal properties of this bark, however, are perhaps noted in journals as far back as the 1560s–1570s.
It is the national tree of Ecuador and Peru.
Peru offers a branch of cinchona toScience (from a 17th-century engraving):Cinchona, the source of Peruvian bark, is an early remedy against malaria.
The medicinal properties of the cinchona tree were originally discovered by the Quechua peoples of Peru and Bolivia, and long cultivated by them as a muscle relaxant to halt shivering due to low temperatures. The Jesuit Brother Agostino Salumbrino (1561–1642), an apothecary by training and who lived in Lima, observed the Quechua using the quinine-containing bark of the cinchona tree for that purpose. While its effect in treating malaria (and hence malaria-induced shivering) was entirely unrelated to its effect in controlling shivering from cold, it was nevertheless the correct medicine for malaria. The use of the “fever tree” bark was introduced into European medicine by Jesuit missionaries (Jesuit’s bark). Jesuit Barnabé de Cobo (1582–1657), who explored Mexico and Peru, is credited with taking cinchona bark to Europe. He brought the bark from Lima to Spain, and afterwards to Rome and other parts of Italy, in 1632. AfterSpanish colonization of the Americas, the Jesuit missionaries were the first to bring the Jesuit’s bark cinchona compound to Europe in 1632. To maintain their monopoly on cinchona bark, Peru and surrounding countries began outlawing the export of cinchona seeds and saplings beginning in the early 19th century.
Meanwhile, also in the 19th century, the plant’s seeds and cuttings were smuggled out for new cultivation at cinchona plantations in colonial regions of tropical Asia, notably by the British to the British Raj and Ceylon (present day India and Sri Lanka), and by theDutch to Java in the Dutch East Indies (present day Indonesia).
As a medicinal herb, cinchona bark is also known as Jesuit’s bark or Peruvian bark. The bark is stripped from the tree, dried, and powdered for medicinal uses. The bark is medicinally active, containing a variety of alkaloids including the antimalarial compoundquinine and the antiarrhythmic quinidine. Currently, their use is largely superseded by more effective modern medicines.