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A basic alkaloid obtained from various species of Cinchona, especially from C. flava, and C. calisaya, or China regia. One of the salts of quinine, especially the sulphate, in which form the alkaloid is chiefly employed, being excellent as a tonic and febrifuge. — Webster, 1882

Laura swallowed a bitter swallow and tried to turn her head away, but the cup followed her mouth. – Little House on the Prairie, Chapter 15, “Fever’n’Ague”

Quinine was the most prevalent treatment for malaria from the 17th century until the mid-19th century, when it was replaced by other drugs. Sulphate of quinia was the bitter powder taken by the Ingalls family; it was also mixed into a solution – often flavored with orange – and called tincture of quinia. As a dry, white powder, quinine was always subject to adulteration which would render it useless as a medicinal treatment: added sugar, starch, magnesia, or gypsum.

In 1820, the alkaloid chemical in cinchona bark was isolated and named quinine. Both the Dutch and British smuggled seeds of cinchona out of South America and planted vast plantations of cinchona trees in Indonesia and Africa. During the Second World War, the Japanese occupied Java and cut off the Allies’ supply of quinine, which led to renewed interest in South American trees and the development of a synthetic version of the alkaloid rather than relying only on natural bark. Today, both natural bark – specifically C. succirubra and C. ledgeriana – and synthetic quinine are used to treat a number of ailments, not only malaria, but flu, dysentery, irregular heartbeat, cancer, muscle spasms and leg cramps, and fevers of all kinds. In recent years, the protozoa causing malaria have developed a resistance to synthetic quinine, causing renewed interest in natural bark.

Although Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote that she was given powdered quinine, followed by water “to wash it down”, the usual method of administering it was to pour boiling water into a cup with a gram or two of ground bark, and allowing the decoction or tea to steep for several minutes. This was taken at least twice per day as a malaria preventative, or to help ease the fevers and chills associated with the disease; note that the Ingallses continue to take quinine after they are feeling better. Doctors often suggested mixing the morning dosage with coffee, and the evening dosage with some sort of alcoholic beverage. Sweet quinine, as advertised in an 1870 newspaper and shown at left, used a sugar syrup to mask the bitter taste of the quinine.

The bitterness of quinine is readily available to taste in tonic water, which contains about 80 parts per million quinine. Look for it where beverages are sold.



Cinchona Bark. The name is applied to the bark of the stem and branches of certain various species of Cinchona. Those which are obtained from trees of the genus Cinchona are called true cinchona barks; they contain quinine. The antifebrile barks were first introduced into Europe from Peru, about the year 1638, by the Countess of Cinchon, wife of the Viceroy of Peru (in whose honor the name Cinchona was given the genus by the Botanist Linnæus), and a few years later by the Jesuits, and soon acquired great celebrity for the cure of intermittent fevers, being known by the medicinal names Pulvis Comitassæ, Jesuiticus, Cardinalis, and Patrum.

The true cinchonas grow on the wooded slopes from western Venezuela to northern Bolivia, in a narrow zone extending through a vertical height of about 6400 feet. The barks which are richest in alkaloids and are exported, require a cool moist climate. The bark is collected at all times of the year, and the inner and outer bark are beaten, then separated and dried, the dried weight being about one-third that of fresh bark. A tree 60 feet high and 5 feet in diameter yields about 10 cwt. of dry bark.

True cinchona bark of commerce is of three kinds: gray or brown, yellow, and red. They come to market rolled or in flat and hollowed oblong pieces of splintery fibrous texture. Cinchona barks are employed medicinally in the form of tinctures and infusions, and are used in this manner for their fever-reducing and tonic properties. — Henry Watts, A Dictionary of Chemistry (London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1874): 965-969.



Physiological Action of Quinine. The physiological action of quinine has lately been the subject of detailed experiment by Binz, who found it to have a extraordinary power in arresting the process of fermentation and putrefaction, and to be a powerful poison for low organisms, or, in other words, for all moving bodies consisting of protoplasms. It appears to kill fungi and bacteria, with accompany fermentation and putrefaction, and puts a stop to these processes. It arrests the motion of the white blood corpuscles, and thus prevents them from making their exit from the blood-vessels. It therefore diminishes or arrests the formation of pus in inflammation, pus consisting in great measure of an accumulation of white corpuscles which have issued from the vessels. It also destroys the power of certain substances to produce ozone. The red blood corpuscles have this power, and, by depriving them of it, quinine, when present in the blood, must diminish the change of tissue in the body, and thereby lessen the production of heat. It is also found that quinine lessens oxidation in the blood; other substances, such as snake poison, increasing it. When putrid fluids are injected into the circulation of an animal, its temperature rises; but if these are previously mixed with quinine, this rise is arrested, or very much diminished. — Harper’s Magazine, 1872.


quinine (LHP 16)