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on 17 December 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.
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on 14 February 2006
An detailed excellent book if you are really interested in how people managed to treat/cure Malaria back in the 18th and 19th century and before - and want to know how hard it was in the late 19th century to get the seeds/plants out of the Andes and over to the UK (and Java where it was possible to grow it easily) in order that the British Empire in India could have the bark to treat Malaria without being held to ransom by the governments of South America. The local Indians knew well what the bark could do and zealously guarded their treasure. The actual chemical analysis of the bark to find what it was that killed the parasite and cured Malaria (Quinine) took a lot longer - it was also realised quite early on that there were many types of Cinchona tree which yielded quinine of different strengths. All this was realised by the explorers who underwent extreme conditions often to see their seedlings die on the voyage back. Quinine was taken/added to tonic water to give some immunity and gin was put with it to kill the bitter taste ! - Ironically - the forests created in India and Java were used to recolonise the Andes which were eventually deforested of Cinchona. The benefits of Quinine where of course of huge significance in the 1st and 2nd War and others no doubt.
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on 13 July 2011
Honigsbaum has created a little gem with this book. Lucid, engaging and dramatic is the story of those men and women who tried to ensure cinchona bark left South America. The author has managed to provide a detailed history coupled with appropriate levels of scientific explanation whilst also preserving the drama that makes this part of history so fascinating.

If you have even the faintest interest in the History of Medicine, South American History etc. then I heartily recommend this book. The fact that Honigsbaum has breathed life and coherence to a complicated history is testament to his skill.
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on 3 December 2001
This book encompasses so much it is difficult to convey its scope in a short review. I ordered it expecting a straightforward science book about malaria, but was surprised to discover it was so much more. It starts with the romantic story of the Countess of Chinchon, and her cure from malaria in Lima in 1638, and then artfully weaves the botany and history of the cinchona tree with the stories of a series of explorers - French, Spanish, British and Dutch - who went to the Andes in search of it. For cinchona, the tree which cured the Countess, turned out to be the source of quinine and it only grew in South America. To get it, botanists had to cross the isthmus of Panama, land on the coast of Ecuador or Peru, and climb up and over the Andes, before descending to the humid cloud forests above the Amazon.It was a perilous journey and the author deals vividly and amusingly with the many mishaps along the way, making the point that so frequent did these missions to the Andes fail, it was almost as if the cinchona tree was cursed. Eventually, three explorers succeeded - all of them British - though the true hero of the tale turns out to have been a Bolivian Indian. It would be enough if Honigsbaum had stopped there, but instead he brings the story right up to date, explaining how quinine was replaced by synthetic drugs after WW2, but has enjoyed a rennaissance recently because of the spread of deadly, drug-resistant strains of malaria. His accounts of the plagues of mosquitoes on the Orinoco had me scratching all over, and his descriptions of how the malaria parasite enters and devours red blood cells made me wonder why I didn't pay more attention during biology lessons. After reading this book, I will never look at an Anopheles mosquito the same way again - not only is it, as Honigsbaum points out, probably the deadliest insect in the world but it has been decimating human settlements since the dawn of time.
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on 5 December 2001
I was very disappointed with The Fever Trail, mostly because I had the feeling I had read most of it before somewhere. It begins in familiar territory (the hoary myth about the Countess of Cinchona supposedly being cured by quinine), and then it proceeds to tell the story of Spruce, Ross and all as they try to understand the nature of malaria and parasites. It ends with the author aimlessly travelling around with various specialists (some no more than cranks) as they try to find a vaccine. Mark Honigsbaum is quite a good storyteller, but he adds little new to the story he tells.
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on 23 November 2001
I really enjoyed reading Fever Trail and highly recommend it to people who enjoy a mixture of true life adventure and scientific facts. The facts never get so much that you would want to put down the book and have a rest. Great read.
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