History of Quinine (Jesuit Bark) in Tonic Water for Malaria


Spanish conquerors learned of quinine’s medicinal uses in Peru at the beginning of the 17th Century, and use of the powdered ” Peruvian bark” was first recorded in religious writings by the Jesuits in 1633. These Jesuit fathers were the primary exporters and importers of quinine early on, and the bark aptly became known as ” Jesuit bark.”

Origins of Quinine or Cinchona (Jesuit) Bark

According to the CDC, the cinchona tree was named for the wife of the Spanish viceroy to Peru, the Countess Anna del Chinchón. In a popular story the Countess fell ill with malaria in 1638, but the use of quinine proved to effectively ward off the disease. Thus, the bark was recognized for treatment of “the fever” in medical literature as early as 1643, although it did not gain wide acceptance in the medical community until Charles II was cured at the end of the 17th Century.

The European quest for the bark ensued soon after that. But information about the cinchona tree and its medicinal bark was slow to reach Europe, according to one resource. It would not be until much later, 1820, that the alkaloid was separated from the powdered bark and named “quinine” by two French doctors.

Synthetic Quinine and the Modern World

The name quinine, as it happens, comes from the South American word for the cinchona tree – quinaquina (“bark of barks”) – and as European countries continued extensive colonization the need for quinine became greater and greater. The Dutch and the British began to cultivate cinchona trees in their East Indian colonies, but the quinine content on these trees was always very low.

Around this time, a British collector, Charles Ledger, obtained some seeds from a relatively potent Bolivian species of the tree and offered to sell them. England was reluctant to purchase more trees that would possibly yield low amounts of quinine, but the Dutch eagerly jumped on the chance and planted Ledger’s seeds at Java. As as result, they came to monopolize the world’s supply of quinine for close to 100 years.

Then, in 1944, synthetic quinine was developed by American scientists, and it proved to be very effective against malaria with fewer side effects. Interestingly, some sites claim that over the years the causative malarial parasite has become resistant to the synthetic quinine preparations but not the natural version.

What is Quinine? Uses, Applications, Facts and Stats

The chemical composition of quinine is complicated (C2OH2 4N2O2H2O), but the process of deriving it is rather simple. Once extracted from cinchona bark, the crystals are mixed with lime, filtered, and shaken with sulfuric acid. The resulting thick solution is then neutralized with sodium carbonate, and, after being treated with ammonia to purify the product, the result is a white, extremely bitter powder.

Medicinally, quinine is best known for its treatment of malaria, but it does not cure the disease as much as it treats the fever and other related symptoms. Pharmacologically speaking, quinine is toxic to many bacteria and one-celled organisms, such as yeast. Actually, it works by concentrating in the red blood cells and is thought to interfere with the protein and glucose synthesis of the malaria parasite. With additional medical treatment the parasites disappear from the blood stream, but if treated with quinine alone malaria may re-occur.

Quinine has also recently been used to treat myotonic dystrophy (muscle weakness, usually facial) and muscle cramps associated with early kidney failure. It does have some side effects, however, including Cinchonism, wich is marked by the following symptoms: dizziness, tinnitus (ringing in ears), vision disturbances, nausea, and vomiting. Extreme effects of excessive quinine poisoning can include blindness and deafness.

But quinine can also have non-medicinal uses, such as in preparations for the treatment of sunburn. It is used in liqueurs, as bitters, and in condiments. Its best known non-medicinal use is its famous addition to tonic water and soft drinks, a tradition that dates back to early British rule.

Interestingly, about 40% of the quinine produced is used by the food and drug industry, the rest is used medicinally. In the United States, beverages made with quinine are limited to 83 parts per million cinchona alkaloids.