Drugs and Discovery: An Early Modern Perspective, Part II

Editor’s Note: Last week historian Matthew Crawford argued against the overdetermined notions of “discovery” and “invention,” and called instead for a palimpsestic understanding of the plant-derived drugs that appeared courtesy of transatlantic encounters.  Today, he takes his thinking further, looking for the earliest–and persistent– traces of the presence of cinchona bark in the pharmacopoeias of the Amazon.

Peru Offers Chinchona Bark to "Science" (Guess Who's Who?)

Before 1820, when the alkaloid was isolated, quinine effectively did not exist. Instead, people had a drug known in Spanish as quina or “the Peruvian bark” in English. Quina was a term for the pulverized bark of the cinchona tree, native to the Andean forests of South America, that would be dissolved in water or wine and administered to patients suffering from intermittent fevers. It was from this bark that Pelletier and Caventou isolated quinine and other alkaloids. Quina was a product of the early modern Atlantic World. Europeans, probably Jesuit missionaries, first encountered the bark in the 1630s and 1640s and it became quite popular by the end of the seventeenth century.

One point of contention in the early history of qiuna is whether the indigenous people of the Americas knew about and used the bark before the arrival of Europeans. In our current context of the destruction of indigenous cultures, debates over intellectual property rights with regard to pharmaceuticals derived from ethnobotanical knowledge, and the long shadow cast by colonialism, the question of indigenous use of quina is highly politicized. 

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