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Deadly Daggers

Bayou-Diversity (21 September 2019) DEADLY DAGGERS Some speculate that Alexander the Great died of a stab wound. The deadly dagger though was not that of his Persian enemies but rather likely the proboscis of a typhoid fever or malaria-infected mosquito. The relationship between conquest and malaria continued through the ages destroying armies and civilians alike. Along with destruction of the Inca civilization, the Spanish brought malaria to the New World. Ironically, this invasion revealed a secret long known by the natives of Peru – the bark of a certain small tree that grew on steep Andean slopes would relieve fevers, including those of malaria. The natives called it quinquina, the “bark of barks.” The invaders named the tree cinchona. In 1640 Jesuit priests brought this powerful malaria medicine back to Europe, but it wasn’t until 1820 that two French doctors were able to isolate the potent chemical in the bark that we call quinine.

Malaria wreaked havoc on the early pioneers of Louisiana and influenced settlement patterns as many sought new homes in the piney hills, which were considered healthier places to live than land near swamps. The link between mosquitoes and malaria was not discovered until after the Civil War. Early doctors in Louisiana were slow to accept the new quinine treatment and stuck to their primitive therapies. An ante-bellum doctor in DeSoto Parish wrote that for malarial fevers he preferred to induce moderate bleeding, the cautious use of mercury, and blistering over the abdomen, spine and extremities. All drugs of the period seemed to have one common ingredient, as referenced in records of the New Orleans Charity Hospital. In 1832, the facility reported expenditures for 749 gallons of wine, 24 hogsheads of claret, 1,306 gallons of whiskey, 102 gallons of gin, and 3 gallons of brandy.

By this time the demand for quinine had caused the near extinction of the wild cinchona trees. Because of their value, Peruvian officials prohibited the exportation of the wild trees. The miracle of quinine was preserved for mankind when the Dutch government bought smuggled seeds and developed cinchona plantations on the island of Java. Since then, quinine and its synthetic clones have saved the lives of millions – including Louisiana soldiers who are fighting today in a land once conquered by Alexander the Great. (adapted from “Bayou-Diversity – Nature & People in the Louisiana Bayou Country;” LSU Press)


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