A Medicine Tree A Miracle
The cure for malaria, it was established beyond all doubt, was quinine, an alkaloid made of bitter red bark from the cinchona tree. Protestants, including Oliver Cromwell, ridiculed the discovery and dismissed it as “ a Popish poison.” Critics were swiftly silenced. Quinine was destined to change the perspective of Western medicine. A momentous breakthrough was achieved all because of a tree which thrived on the foothills of the Andes
My experience of malaria was what I observed at Assam when I was posted on certain tea gardens of the Williamson Magor Group. The disease is more common on the north bank. The moist rain forests, paddy fields and a humidity of 75 to 85 per cent all combine to create ideal conditions for the breeding of mosquitoes. I was in my third year when I was posted to Assam’s north bank. A neighbouring estate, small and privately owned, was tucked away towards an easterly direction. Legendary stories in the area related how in 1940 the small privately owned estate, with a population of barely 1000, had closed down for almost one year. A Malaria epidemic killed the entire population. I listened to these stories in horror. During the monsoon season I would watch my estate’s medical staff inspect people in every labour colony, treating fever cases with quinine and taking blood samples which were smeared on glass slides. Quinine is used for the treatment of falciparum malaria. Registers were meticulously maintained. Every tea estate’s hospital in the WM Group has a precious repository of data related to the incidence of malaria. Areas with a higher rate of malaria were quickly identified for fumigation. Planning to combat this disease is like preparing an exercise on a war footing. If malaria is not confirmed by way of a blood test, the risk of overlooking the infection can be disastrous. This disease is as dangerous and virulent as it was four centuries ago. I could understand why the army were deployed to remote areas of the North East and Bengal solely to treat villagers. There is recorded evidence of an epidemic of malaria in 1852 which wiped out the entire population of a village, Ula, near Hirapur, in West Bengal. Malaria is the most widespread and serious disease of the world. ‘A staggering 40 per cent of the world’s population is exposed to the infection in tropical and sub tropical regions,’ writes Jitendra Sharma, who conducted extensive research on malaria in Assam’s north bank. Despite the dangerous nature of malaria it has a grand biography. Indeed its saga over the centuries is fraught with an almost phantasmagorical sequence of events. But the events, unbelievable as they seem, are true.
It was in the summer of 1623 when ten cardinals and hundreds of attendants died in Rome while electing a new Pope. The effects of this deadly disease had entered the Roman Empire. British troops were killed in thousands fighting Napoleon in 1809. Malaria as an epidemic affected the American Civil War and construction of the Panama Canal was stopped. “For more than a thousand years there was no cure for the disease,” writes Flammetta Rocco. Pope Urban V111 elected during the malarial summer of 1623 was determined to find a cure. He encouraged mission priests to travel into Asia and South America and learn all they could from locals about this terrible scourge. A young apothecarist named Agostino Salumbrino began a network of pharmacies thus keeping millions in South America and Europe supplied with medicine. In 1631 Salumbrino dispatched a miracle to Rome. The cure for malaria, it was established beyond all doubt, was quinine, an alkaloid made of bitter red bark from the cinchona tree. Protestants, including Oliver Cromwell, ridiculed the discovery and dismissed it as “a Popish poison.” Critics were swiftly silenced. Quinine was destined to change the perspective of Western medicine. A momentous breakthrough was achieved all because of a tree which thrived on the foothills of the Andes. Even today as we read this, the miracle of quinine continues to save lives. In fact as a cure it possibly transcends the healing properties of any other flora. Bernadino Ramazzini, a Physician in 1716, wrote : “Cinchona revolutionised medicine as profoundly as gunpowder had the art of war.”
It was the Botanist Carolus Linnaceus who in 1742 established the botanical genus, cinchona. Dr. Anderson, of the Calcutta Botanical Gardens arranged the import of cinchona saplings and commenced experimental trials in 1862 at Darjeeling’s Mungpoo. He established Mungpoo’s cinchona plantation in 1864. This idyllic location with the ‘whispering’ of cinchona trees in a breeze is a unique retreat; wooden houses are placed on part of the periphery. A place often visited by Tagore. He would spend days there and ensconced under the leafy boughs of a cinchona tree pursued his writing in the most peaceful environment imaginable. One of his masterpieces, a poem, “ Awakening of the waterfall,” was composed at Mungpoo; he was inspired by this location as evoked by his writing; “ My spirit longs to burst like the waters….The hills are shaking and heaps of rocks rolling down….The savage surging waters swelling up, roaring in rousing rage…” The cinchona trees on hillocks, at Mungpoo, which inspired Tagore, will continue to bless mankind for generations with this tree’s miraculous healing powers.
By Deepak Rikhye