Quinine in the Arctic

Quinine – most of us have heard of it and associate it with the treatment of malaria. Recently a certain manufacturer of soft drinks even mentioned it again in a sort of mock-colonial advert for tonic water. Although tonic water was indeed originally mixed as an anti-malaria treatment in tropical regions, what the ad does not mention is that our tonic water contains less than 20 milligrams of quinine per 1.5 decilitre, whereas the recommended quinine dosage for treatment of malaria is two or three 200-350 milligram tablets three times a day.[1]

In several of the medicine chests at the National Maritime Museum, preparations of quinine are also found, including quinine disulphate in a chest that was used by the ill-fated Franklin expedition to the Arctic (1845).[2] Searching for a North-western passage to Asia, all 128 men died after their boats got stuck in the ice in the Canadian Arctic.[3] Seen through twenty-first century eyes, it may seem very odd to take anti-malaria drugs on an Arctic expedition. Upon closer investigation, it is not as strange as it seems.

A nineteenth-century bottle of a quinine preparations, like the one in the chest of the Franklin expedition.

Quinine, an alkaloid made of the bitter red bark of the cinchona tree, was ‘discovered’ in Peru in 1631. It was no chance discovery – the Quechua already knew it, but malaria was not indigenous to the new world. In fact, the discovery of the usefulness of quinine in malaria by a Jesuit apothecary was the result of  a search commanded by Pope Urban VIII, after ten cardinals and hundreds of their attendants who came to Rome to elect a new pope died in the Roman marshes in 1623 from ‘bad air’ or, in Italian, mal’aria.[4]

Unlike what many people think nowadays, malaria is not unique to tropical regions. Until the early twentieth century, it was indigenous to much of Europe. Epidemics regularly occurred in regions as northern as Denmark and even Finland.[5] Moreover, the malaria parasite was not discovered until 1880 by the French army surgeon Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran (who received a Nobel prize for his discovery in 1907).[6] So until 1880, malaria was literally mal’aria: a disease characterized by intermittent fevers, thought to be caused by ‘bad air.’

Obviously, this ‘bad air’ could occur anywhere, so it made perfect sense to the men on Franklin’s expedition to take it with them on their Arctic explorations. There is a fair chance they too mixed it with other beverages though, as the quinine disulphate they brought with them tasted so bitter that it induced vomiting before it could have any therapeutic effect…

Image source: http://carmichael.lib.virginia.edu/story/pharmacy.html

[2] Catalogue numbers AAA2224.18, TOA0131.4

[3] John Geiger and Owen Beattie, Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition. Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2004

[4] Fiammetta Rocco, The Miraculous Fever-Tree: Malaria, Medicine and the Cure that Changed the World. HarperCollins 2010

[5] Reiter, Paul. “Global warming and malaria: knowing the horse before hitching the cart”. Malaria Journal 7 (2008): suppl. 1.

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