Cinchona, a genus of thirty-eight species of trees and shrubs, is found on the western slopes of the Andes, from Colombia to Peru. Although some of these plants are known for their fever-reducing properties, there is no evidence that the Incas were aware of their medicinal value. The earliest recorded use of cinchona was in 1630, when Jesuits treated the viceroy of Peru for fever with the bark of the plant. This bark, in pulverized form called "Jesuit powder," proved to be extremely popular as a preventive and cure for malaria for Europeans in the tropics. Linnaeus named the plants in 1742 after the Countess of Chinchón, who was said to have recovered from malaria after being treated with the powdered bark. Although the story was without factual basis, the name stuck.
The active ingredients in the bark of the cinchona are any one of four alkaloids—cinchonine, cinchonidine, quinidine, and quinine—this last being the most important of the four. As the amount of quinine in each species varies greatly, efforts were made to separate the drug from the bark. In 1820 French chemists Pierre Pelletier and Joseph Caventou successfully produced crystallized quinine from cinchona.
After 1821 the Jesuit practice of planting five trees for every one cut was discontinued by the governments of the newly liberated countries, a decision that led to the destruction of most of the cinchona in Peru and Colombia. From 1844 to 1851, Bolivia passed laws regulating the export of cinchona bark and forbidding the export of cinchona seeds. These policies resulted in an insufficient European supply, which spurred efforts to smuggle the seeds out of South America. Clements R. Markham, an Englishman, safely brought plant seeds of the succirubra and oficialis varieties of cinchona to Europe in 1858, and seven years later Charles Ledger arrived in Europe with seeds of C. ledgeriana, a superior variety. Ledger learned about the different kinds of cinchona plants and their properties from a Bolivian Aymara guide, Manuel Incra Mamani, who pointed out the red-bark cinchona as having the greatest curative powers. It is this variety that bears Ledger's name.
The Dutch were the most successful in establishing cinchona plantations. Their East Indies properties yielded enough quinine for European needs until World War II interrupted production. Synthetic quinine, such as atebrin, which was developed by I. G. Farbenindustrie in 1930, then became an important substitute for the natural product. Synthetics remain the major source of quinine, whereas cinchona is used mostly for flavoring tonics such as quinine water.
Jaramillo-Arango, Jaime. The Conquest of Malaria. London: Heinemann, 1950.
Gramiccia, Gabriele. The Life of Charles Ledger (1818–1905): Alpacas and Quinine. London: Macmillan, 1988.
Sheila L. Hooker
cin·cho·na / singˈkōnə; sinˈchōnə/ • n. an evergreen South American tree or shrub (genus Cinchona) of the bedstraw family. ∎ (also cinchona bark) the bark of this tree, a source of quinine. ∎ a drug made from this bark.