Cinchona Research Paper

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Incas of the Andes were likely to have used the bark of the cinchona tree to combat fever, and Europeans later recognized it as a remedy for malaria, but many found it difficult to stomach and inconsistent in strength. After 1820, scientists’ ability to isolate quinine, an antimalarial alkaloid, from its bark led to the cultivation of the tree in Java and India, until the advent of synthetic antimalarials after World War II.

Native to the eastern slopes of the Andes, the bark of the cinchona tree entered into the medical practice in Europe in the late sixteenth century as the cure for recurring fevers—that is, malaria. It is likely that the Incas had earlier used cinchona as a fever-reducing drug; the Spanish conquistadors are thought to have benefited from this indigenous practice when they introduced malaria from the Old World into the Americas during the course of their conquests. Popularized by the Jesuits, the use of cinchona bark increased in Western Europe over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, eventually overcoming Protestant prejudice against the “Jesuits’ bark.” It gained a deserved reputation as a specific remedy for a particular set of physical complaints, long before the germ theory of disease.

Cinchona bark had its drawbacks, however. There were many different varieties of cinchona tree. The four principal alkaloids—that is, the organic bases containing nitrogen that had a physiological effect— varied greatly among the barks. Furthermore, the bark was difficult to stomach; Europeans generally took it mixed with wine.

From 1820, after the successful isolation of the cinchona alkaloids of quinine and cinchonine by French chemists, demand increased for cinchona bark as the raw material for quinine, which became the most popular antimalarial medicine. Malaria was widespread in both the Old and the New Worlds, and new chemical manufacturing companies in North America and Western Europe sprang up to transform cinchona bark into the more easily digestible, alkaloidal forms of the antimalarial medicine. Andean specialists (cascarillos) harvested the bark; new roads were cut into the remote highlands of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru, and new towns were established to handle exports. The Andean harvesting methods, however, involved stripping off the bark, which killed the trees and ultimately put the future of the extractive industry at risk.

By the mid-nineteenth century, Europeans became increasingly concerned about the prospects for a continuing supply of cinchona bark from the Andean highlands. As Europeans embarked on their second great colonial expansion in the middle of the nineteenth century, the administrators of European empire laid plans to create a cinchona plantation industry within the Asian tropics. Thus began one of the great imperial European botanical ventures of the nineteenth century.

After Dutch failures in the 1850s to establish cinchona on Java in the South Pacific, in the early 1860s the British introduced cinchona to the Nilgiri Hills in southern India and to the highlands of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). These experiments were successful with two varieties known as Cinchona succirubra and C. officinalis that grew at different elevations. But these sizable efforts were then largely eclipsed by the dogged experimentation of the Dutch managers on Java, who procured seeds of another subvariety of cinchona known as C. ledgeriana. The Dutch experimenters sampled the alkaloid contents of the barks of individual trees, and then destroyed all but the highest yielding. They also undertook an agronomic program of grafting high-yielding C. ledgeriana on to the hardier C. succirubra stocks. By the late nineteenth century, a large majority of the world’s supply of cinchona bark was produced under the auspices of the Dutch on Java. The British cinchona plantations in India continued to produce bark for antimalarial medicines to be consumed within British India. Other European imperial powers—notably the French and the Germans—also set up cinchona plantations in Africa and in Southeast Asia, but these plantations produced relatively small amounts of bark, destined for the colonial tropical markets.

The demand for cinchona bark to make antimalarials was erratic. Malaria was a global health problem, but the antimalarials were expensive, and North Americans and Western Europeans made up the lion’s share of the market. Demand spiked during epidemic outbreaks and then receded. Plantation owners on Java often found themselves with an oversupply of cinchona bark, and when the price plummeted, some were forced out of business. The survivors of these market paroxysms entered into cartel agreements in a series of attempts to stabilize the global price of the bark.

During the 1920s, plantation owners and cinchona brokers formed an international cartel known as the Kina (the Dutch word for “cinchona”) Bureau, based in Amsterdam. It set the prices for producers and purchasers. In 1942, the Japanese conquered the Dutch East Indies and seized control of the cinchona plantations, severing the Allies’ supply and provoking experimentation with other natural and synthetic antimalarials. After the war, the cinchona plantations on Java were reestablished, but the new synthetic antimalarials, such as chloroquinine, had come to replace most of the demand for quinine from cinchona.


  1. Duran-Reynals, M. L. (1946). The fever bark tree: The pageant of quinine. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
  2. Gramiccia, G. (1988). The life of Charles Ledger (1818–1905): Alpacas and quinine. Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan.
  3. Honigsbaum, M. (2001). The fever trail: In search of the cure for malaria. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
  4. Jarco, S. (1993). Quinine’s predecessor. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  5. Taylor, N. (1945). Cinchona in Java: The story of quinine. New York: Greenberg.
  6. Webb, J. L. A., Jr. (2002). Tropical pioneers: Human agency and ecological change in the highlands of Sri Lanka, 1800–1900. Athens: Ohio University Press.

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