4.0 out of 5 stars
I thought it was very good., 17 Dec 2008
This book gives a fantastic insight into the lives of the heroes who devoted their life to searching for a cure for Malaria. This disease "devastate armies, laid waste to great civilisations and killed popes, kings and subjects alike." There was no doubt that Malaria was profoundly feared when it was considered one of the biggest killers of all time, but the question was, would anyone find a cure that would negate and prevent its violent attacks. This story is about the discovery of a bark from a particular tree found in South America which could stave off the fevers. This revolutionised botanical research as the worlds next task was to discover its properties, living conditions and the greatest task of all, how to transfer the saplings across the Atlantic.
Three explorers/botanists devoted their lives to travelling through the hostile, unwelcoming environment that was the Bolivian and Peruvian jungles in search of this Cinchona tree, Charles Ledger, Richard Spruce and Clement Markham. However the story begins by detailing how the medicinal drug called Quinine was discovered and who by, the native Inca tribes, Joseph de Jessieu (the French expedition's botanist) or La Condamine. The actual answer is unknown as each believed it was them alone who had found the drug. The book describes the relative stories connected to each, whilst embedding the scientific information which was used as evidence. I found this useful, because the author's descriptions of the effects of quinine and the way in which it prevents fevers were very easy to understand, due to the immense amount of information given to ensure our comprehension. Honigsbaum also writes about the effects of the Malaria parasite early on in the book, to give the reader a basic grounding in the disease and the biology involved.
The book then moves on to give a detailed account of the life of Spruce, Ledger and Markham who separately played a huge part in the history of botany and its effects on Medicine today. The story follows each man and gives a realistic view on the hardships of life in the jungle, due to insects, hostile weather conditions, impenetrable vegetation and insufferable, unloyal servants. The most astonishing chapter told of when the botanist had recovered the correct cinchona saplings after months (if not years) of hardships, when the shack containing the samples was burnt down, after a freak storm occurrence. This is a perfect example of the regular failures that came about in each new situation and yet resulting in the men's greater determination and perseverance.
The author also writes about the different types of Cinchona tree and the varying quantities of quinine contained in its bark (ranging from 0.1%- 14%). For example, the task for the botanists would be far from over if they stumbled across a group of cinchona trees in the heart of the impenetrable jungle. First they would have to identify them, as there were cross breads of tree (which meant that identification was hard, as they would rarely contain a significant amount of quinine). Then they would have to wait until the trees were in perfect condition to harvest the saplings to take as samples (this could take years). Once the saplings were obtained, they would have to be constantly cared for, due to the specific conditions that were required for a healthy growth. If all this had been accomplished the saplings would have to survive a long, treacherous journey across the Atlantic. The only way of transfer was discovered accidentally by a British botanist who created the Wardian Cases.
I defiantly would recommend this book, as it has given me an idea of the basic science encompassing the Malaria fevers and the effects of the quinine from the Cinchona tree. A must read for anyone remotely interested in exploration and Malaria.