Friday, December 11, 2009

On Pelletier and Caventou, malaria, syphilis, and a gin and tonic

Image of the Hong Kong Island skyline from the lounge of the Intercontinental Hotel in Hong Kong. This image is entitle 'Relaxing in the Intercontinental Hotel in Hong Kong with my Dad and a gin and tonic. This really gives you an idea of just how big IFC2, in the far right of the skyline, is'.Dear Gentle Reader,

Your humble scribe has mentioned, in passing, the British, in India, before.

And we have glossed over the quinine they took, as tonic water, combined with that Dutch poison, gin.

The British dosed their bitter medicine (quinine dissolved in carbonated water--tonic water) with gin to make it, the quinine, more palatable.

But, what is quinine? Where is it from? Why do we all know its name?

Quinine is a medicine used to combat malaria, which, with all our drugs and skills and knowledge, today, is still a significant global killer.

Malaria was even more feared before reliable medicines were known.

But, that doesn't tell us much about what quinine is.

Image of the quinine molecule sourced from the Wikimedia Commons; in the public domain.Quinine, C20H24N2O2, is an alkaloid derived from a plant.

It was isolated in 1820 by Pierre-Joseph Pelletier (1788-1842) and Joseph-Bienaimé Caventou (1795-1887), two French chemists who worked in Paris.

Those gentlemen were great.

They isolated quinine to treat malaria.

They also isolated brucine, a poison, that would later be used, in small doses, to treat and regulate blood pressure.

(Brucine also regulates blood pressure when administered in large doses, but it does so in a more permanent and unpleasant fashion).

Pelletier and Caventou also isolated strychnine to treat rats and other rodents.


(People were treated with strychnine, too. The less-reputable Dr. Thomas Neil Cream (1850-1892), the Lambeth Poisoner, murdered many women, and a few men, as a way to treat the world and purge sexual sin...)

Pelletier and Caventou even isolated chlorophyll.

Chlorophyll is not just the stuff that freshens your breath in some breath mints.

Chlorophyll is the green chemical that allows plants to convert CO2 and water (H2O) into sugar n(CH20) and O2; chlorophyll allows plants to turn sunlight into chemical energy which is rather important for ecosystems on earth.

That chemical reaction, as an aside, written out, looks something like this:

6CO2 + 6H2O + photons (light) → C6H12O6 + 6O2

But, without the chlorophyll, nothing happens. That arrow requires chlorophyll, the catalyst in the equation.


Love those plants.

Treat them well.

(Give peas a chance.)

Finally, Messers Pierre-Joseph Pelletier and Joseph-Bienaimé Caventou even isolated caffeine, a very valuable chemical in the modern world.

Your humble scribe remembers isolating caffeine in an organic chemistry lab a long, long time ago.

Hours of work for a little bit of powder.

I apparently loved the labour, though; I stayed up for a week afterwards.

But, back to quinine.

Quinine was a far more valuable chemical in Pelletier and Caventou's time than caffeine is in our time.

In 1820, quinine, C20H24N2O2, was a very big deal.

Why? Because of malaria.

Malaria was, and had been, a scourge to Europeans scouring the globe for opportunities evangelical, mercantile and sovereign.

The bacteriological agent, Plasmodium, which was responsible for malaria and which was transmitted by the Anopheles mosquitoes (but only by the ladies), would not be discovered until 1880 by Charles Laveran (1845-1922).

However, the Jesuits had made a remarkable discovery, in Peru, early in the seventeenth century.

The Jesuits discovered what the Quechua Indians of that Spanish possession, Peru, knew. They learned that if you boiled the bark of what became known as the Cinchona shrub/tree you might be able to cure a malaria victim.

The mythical, Western origin legend was that the Countess of Chinchona, wife of the Spanish Viceroy to Peru, was cured of malaria by the Quechua Indians and, hence, later, Carolus Linaeus would name the shrub/tree Cinchona.

(Isn't it obvious that the miracle plant would be named after the Western victim rather than the people who supplied the information? No? Go back to your history books!)

Jesuit's bark (later, Cinchona bark) became known in Europe as the cure, and as a possible prophylactic, or preventative treatment, against malaria.

The prophylactic treatment came from the work of one Dr. Christian Hahnemann (1755-1843), the father of homeopathy--the concept that like cures like.

The historical pre-foundation of homeopathy can be found in the English expression "the hair of the dog" which refers to the idea of taking a stiff drink in the morning to ward off a hangover from the night before.

Its etymology was the ancient belief that if you were bit by a dog, you should cut out some of the hair of the dog that bit you and stuff that into your wound to ward off disease, especially rabies.

This treatment came from Roman times as an example of the medicinal rule similia similibus curantor, or like cures like.

Dr. Hahnemann, a German physician, noted that cinchona could not only cure malaria, but if taken in large doses by a healthy person, cinchona would induce the same symptoms as malaria.

Recalling the old Roman adage, and modern, recorded observations, Dr. Hahnemann founded the medicinal science of homeopathy--from observations on the curative, and causative, properties of cinchona bark.

So, remembering that the active ingredient of cinchona bark, essentially, was quinine--quinine could be argued to the root (though it comes from bark) of homeopathy.

More things should be noted about malaria and quinine.

Another scourge of Europe, and the world at that time, was the pox, women's pox, the scourge.... syphilis.

(An aside, while malaria really is only spread by ladies, lady Anopheles mosquitoes, that is, it was believed for a long time that syphilis was only spread by ladies which was why it was called woman's pox.)

Syphilis was painful, virulent, incurable, and fatal.

People tried cures, like injecting large quantities of mercury up men's urethras, and tried prophylactics... like condoms made from fishskins... with the scales still on... or from the intestines of sheep, or lambs... an interesting origin theory, perhaps, for the slang terms alluding to a phallus as a sausage....

But, sadly, none of the cures or prophylactics worked.

Then it was discovered, perversely, that a malarial infection would kill a syphilis infection.

Although the patient would still die.

Until Jesuit's bark came along, however, because powdered cinchona helped some people survive malaria.

So quinine, the isolated active compound from cinchona bark, or Jesuit's bark, had a monumental impact on the world.

Now that malaria could be cured, it was easier, or at least safer, to explore the world and to extract wealth from it.

Further, one could now fornicate with abandon.

Life was looking up.

(Especially now that scratchy fish-scale condoms could be abandoned.)

Based upon Dr. Hahnemann's theories of homeopathy, people took quinine as a prophylactic against getting malaria, especially when they were abroad.

Grains of wildly bitter quinine were given to members of the Indian Army and the Indian civil service.

Enlisted men had to take the quinine on their parade grounds, under the watchful gaze of their officers, as the medicinal quinine was so stupefyingly bitter that some would try to not take it.

Wealthy British planters in India consumed large quantities of gin to help the bitter quinine grains go down. And they found that gin went well with the bitter taste of quinine.

Eventually some clever chap thought of brewing up bark from the remijia tree of Peru so that people could have a better bitter tonic, and by better, I mean cheaper.

Remijia is a relative of the cinchona shrub/tree. It has a more bitter taste than cinchona bark and while it has some quinine in its bark, it has less quinine that cinchona...which makes remijia relatively cheaper although more flavourful. And the name of the game in advertising is not reality, but appearances.

The new tonic water from remijia bark tasted more of quinine than cinchona bark did, although it actually had less, so it was ideal for a mass distributor of a bitter, quinine flavoured tonic for profit.

And thus Indian tonic water, and hence a gin and tonic, was born.

And why did your humble scribe go off on that long, earlier, laudatory aside on Messers Pierre-Joseph Pelletier and Joseph-Bienaimé Caventou?

...Beside the fact that quinine had a monumental impact on the world from curing and preventing malaria, to curing syphilis, to creating the gin and tonic cocktail...

Because, after Pelletier and Caventou had isolated quinine, the key to combatting malaria, and, circuitously, syphilis, Pelletier and Caventou freely gave their knowledge away to the world.

Their benefit was seeing the world benefit.

I think that that is worth a laudatory aside for those two gentlemen.


Charge your glass with some gin.

And some tonic.

And join me in a toast to Pelletier and Caventou.


And the music for today...

Click to hear 'Root Trees' by Shawn Lee & Clutchy Hawkins


Image of the Hong Kong Island skyline from the lounge of the Intercontinental Hotel in Hong Kong, again, after dinner. This image is entitle 'See? Gin and Tonics make everything better... Next stop, Nobu's...'.


Dominic Rivron said...

A fascinating ramble! I'm reminded of something I heard on the radio a while ago: apparently there is enough cyanide in a cup-full of apple pips to kill you. It's rather put me off eating my apple-cores.

Fireblossom said...

Ah, gin and tonic, my old frienemy. It is the only alcoholic drink I miss the taste of, lo these 24 years later.

Oh sure, blame the females. Just because the male mosquitos kept trying to bite rocks and tree limbs because they wouldn't stop and ask for proper directions.

Anyway, everyone knows that malaria is caused by bad air. Mal + aria. Recommended treatment: prevent the patient from breathing. Cure rate: 100%. Side effects: Miss Otis regrets she's unable to lunch today.

MichaelO said...

That was an incredible flurry of information! And quite intoxicating I might add. All this knowledge of cocktails and opiates, you must be a joy to travel with!

Messers Pelletier and Caventou were instrumental in allowing western imperialists to imbibe and fornicate. Perhaps the song for the day should have been Jimmy Buffet's "Why Don't We Get Drunk and Screw"!?

murat11 said...

A lovely toast you fashioned for P & C, those intrepid French gallants. Read this yesterday and enjoyed it immensely (well, maybe not the paragraph on catheterized mercury and fishy condoms); on the scan through today, I kept imagining Jesuit's bark as a nasty and nagging cough, common amid the intellectual Catholic set. Waugh, no doubt, was a chronic sufferer.

Teresa said...

Well, Chris, this is fun (and distracting, but who needs to finish final projects any way?).

Just a few comments:

Are you sure the white powder you isolated in chem lab was really caffeine? The end results sound more like what happens in some of the homegrown meth labs here in California.

The tale my homeopath used to tell about how Hahnemann stumbled onto his theory of homeopathy was that he was a traditional 18th century physician prior to his "conversion." His daughters contracted smallpox. He did all he could to save them, including leeches, bloodletting, and what-not. A poor family nearby also had children with smallpox. They did not have money for all the fancy cures that leeched your blood AND your pocketbook. They went to the local midwife/"wise" woman/hedge witch. Their children survived. This sent Papa Hahnemann into a state of shock. He began researching herbal medicine going all the way back to the Greeks and Romans. I believe that his "like cures like" came from Hippocrates by way of Galen. (I'll have to dig out my Organon and find out, but that will definitely have to wait until after papers and finals are ALL done.) He then had an "aha" moment when he thought of quinine.

In the Organon of Medicine, he states in his 9th point of the preamble that he wants to cure men so they can follow their higher calling. Hahnemann was also a preacher's son. His personal, most developed remedy, was sulphur (also made from dust). Karl Marx probably would have benefited from a homeopathic sulphur treatment. And then the world would not have had all the great revolutionary writings from his pen, and his wife would not have worked herself to death. But I digress.

Part of the early homeopaths' fascination with sulphur came from an attempt to cure humanity of original sin. Hahnemann also states in his prefatory points that sickness came into the world via the fall, but God provided the plants to cure the illnesses and allowed men to know what they cured by causing those plants to produce the same symptoms in healthy people.

Then based on Hippocrates again, and that famous oath to do no harm, Hahnemann realized that most of the medicines and practices of his day harmed more than they cured. So he found ways to cut the physical dosage of the herb with very potent alcohol (probably schnapps with beer chasers). Then he pounded the mixture time and time again to "release its essential properties." I understand that certain physics students at UC Berkeley have found the energy imprints in homeopathic remedies, which have been diluted and succussed to the point that they contain only trace amounts of the original herb. A chemist would say they are pretty much just alchohol.

And one final homeopathic trivia item: the old Queen Mum used to use it all the time. I believe the royal family still uses it for colds and what-not. The best remedies currently available are from England.

Like Fireblossom, I'm not sure I like your feminist slurs about females being the only ones to spread malaria and syphillis. If European men were not so rapacious, we wouldn't be forced to use germ warfare to defend ourselves...

And, prossit to all as we toast the ingeniously generous duo of Pelletier & Caventou. I will have to wait to drink the toast till Monday. We don't have gin at home, but I know where there's a stash in the faculty association office... those professors, gotta love 'em. But I do confess that we students love to drive them wild!


Barbara Martin said...

Interesting post, Chris.

I learned about Jesuit's bark during the reading of one of Diana Gabaldon's books in her Outlander series, where one of the characters, Claire Randall Fraser, treated a young girl with it.

Apple seeds are poisonous which I found out when accidently fed to a lovebird I had.