Yellow bark – the first medicine against malaria

Cinchona officinalis, a species of
quinine producing bark.
Photo: Carmen Ulloa.

Already in the 17th century a very expensive medicine against fever could be bought in Europe. It was the bark from a tree in Peru named quina-quina, which means ‘the bark among barks' in a South American Indian language. The bark is harvested from some different species of the genus Cinchona (yellow bark tree) belonging to the bedstraw family (Rubiaceae). Those trees are found in the wild in the forests of the Andes in South America.

The medicine has a bitter taste and contains among other substances quinine, which is poisonous to the malaria parasite. When Linnaeus wrote his thesis on malaria he was of the opinion that bitter substances such as quinine did not cure malaria. Later he changed his mind when it was shown that quinine bark was one of the best treatments for malaria patients.

The bark was soon a well-known cure against malaria and other diseases. Large quantities of quinine bark was collected in the wild in South America and shipped to Europe. During the 19th century large Cinchona plantations were established in Asia. Most of the quinine bark was produced in Dutch plantations in Java. It has been said that the Europeans could never have colonised Africa without access to quinine bark.

During the Second World War Java was occupied by Japan and the quinine bark export to Europe stopped. The Europeans had to turn to the forests of South America again to get the important medicine. Quinine bark is not used any longer but has been replaced by several different synthetically produced medicines. Quinine bark is however used as flavouring in bitter soft drinks, such as tonic water.

Last modified: 2021-06-21