Peruvian Quechua Indians discovered the first effective treatment for malaria.
Malaria, a disease transmitted from one human to another by way of mosquito bites, has been a problem throughout human history. Especially prevalent in tropical and subtropical areas, malaria has also been known as marsh fever since the warm wet conditions are ideal for the mosquitoes that spread the parasite.
The first effective treatment for malaria came from the Quechua Indians of Peru, who used the bark of the cinchona tree for another reason, namely to reduce tremors brought about by cold ambient temperatures. That the bark not only effectively treated malarial tremors but also the disease itself was somewhat coincidental. Its proven effectiveness made cinchona bark a valuable import from Peru to Rome in the 1600s to treat the malarial outbreaks fostered by mosquitoes in the swamps and marshes around Rome. The active component of the cinchona bark was isolated in the late 1700s and was named quinine after the Indians who initially discovered it.
During World War II, access to quinine became an important priority for the armies fighting in the South Pacific, where 500,000 American troops became infected and 60,000 died of malaria. Like so many other chemical projects undertaken as a response to wartime shortages, limited access to the natural product prompted scientists to synthesize quinine in different ways, but under peacetime conditions, the only economically feasible source remained isolating it from the cinchona tree bark. In the 1940’s, alternative anti-malarial medicines were discovered, and as a result, quinine is now used only on rare occasions.
Quinine is also the bitter flavor found in tonic water. The British used quinine as a medicine to prevent malaria while posted in India. According to tradition, the ever-resourceful British added gin to their daily medication to kill the taste of the quinine, and thus invented the cocktail: gin and tonic.
Additional information on quinine may be found at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0000648/