Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Gin, tonic, and ornithology

The tomb of Willam Graham McIvor in the
St Stephen's Church cemetery in Ooty.
It is widely held that gin and tonic was an invention to get soldiers in British India swallow some bitter quinine to keep away malaria. It might have been an even more bitter pill to swallow for those who believed that miasmas caused disease. The refusal to believe that minute living organisms caused disease was convenient in some ways, it meant you could ward away disease by living in healthy places such as the hills and dressing  in flannel to avoid chilling as cold weather favoured the miasma. It also meant that quarantine (etymologically the Italian root referred to 40 days based on the incubation of plague) delays in (already slow) ship journeys could be avoided.

The story of quinine in India is an interesting one and has some surprising connections to ornithology in India that I was exploring on a recent visit to the Nilgiris.

The story behind malaria, cinchona and quinine is so fascinating that the sheer number of publications on the history of cinchona is staggering (there are several bibliographic compilations on the topic!). Looking at the literature for India suggests that vast changes in landscape have been caused just so that people (at least the ones that did not have sickle cells and other forms of evolved resistance to malaria) could enter new regions which they further altered by building roads and habitations. "Malarious" regions, mainly forests, were probably large pockets of natural protection for biodiversity. Malaria literally means bad air and the theory was that diseases were spread by miasmas (gases or mists) and this partly justified the idea of treating higher elevations as safe sanataria. There was even the field of "medical topography" that dealt with the spatial distribution of disease and although they might have erred on causal factors, the practitioners did attempt to collate evidence. The sheer number of people involved in researching and fighting the problem (often dying in the process) of diseases (particularly malaria, plague and cholera) and the spin-offs to the sciences of botany, entomology, chemistry and oddly ornithology is just incredible. Scientific pursuits that saved human lives earned a halo of nobility. Seen in this light, the public repute of the botanist is sadly a lot lower than it was before.

The cinchona introduction program was part of a solution to a problem coming in the way of the colonial quest for more lands. The Spanish had discovered the effectiveness of Cinchona bark in curing malarial fever and their extraction of the bark led to near complete destruction of trees in some regions and then the British Empire saw the problem of dependence on dwindling South American supplies and rising costs.

Detail on the tomb of McIvor with Cinchona carvings

Clements Markham is the man who takes a lot of credit for the cinchona program in India. He was knighted for this achievement but the idea that cinchona could be grown in the Nilgiris was first floated by John Forbes Royle. Royle "inferred from a comparison of soil and climate with the geographical distribution of cinchonaceous [=Rubiaceae] plants, that the quinine yielding cinchonas might be cultivated on the slopes of the Neilgherries, and of the Southern Himalayas, in the same way that I had inferred that Chinese tea plants might be cultivated in the Northern Himalayas." (27 June 1852)

Markham, a chronicler, explorer, geographer and writer also attempted to bring back the spelling Chinchona to correctly reflect its etymology - the plant is named after Lady Ana de Osorio, countess of Chinchón, wife of the Viceroy of Peru, who was (according to a very dubious version) in 1638 afflicted with a "tertian" fever while in Lima. Don Francisco Lopez de Canizares, heard of her illness and sent a parcel of bark that was used by the natives around Quito to treat fevers (worth remembering that South America was by and large malaria free, although it may have had one form of malaria, until Columbus and European movement c. 1492). The Countess recovered rather miraculously and word of the drug travelled rapidly. She took back bark to Spain to distribute among the sick there and it soon came to be known as Pulvis Comitissae (the Countess' powder) among the druggists. Linnaeus came to hear of the plant via the French and though he intended to name the genus after the Countess, he spelt it wrong (in the 1767 edition it even got printed as "Cinhona"). The Spanish botanists Ruiz Lopez and José Antonio Pavón Jiménez noted the spelling mistake and described several species in the genus but the spelling stuck and many were upset that it credited "cinchon", a policeman's belt, instead of their dear Countess. Markham's attempts at taxonomic emendation of the spelling were not as successful as his mission to introduce cinchona into India.

Markham's map of the "Chinchona" plantations.
By the 1800s, the Spanish trade in Cinchona had managed to depauperate the forests of South America. Removal of the bark in unsustainable ways by uprooting the tree and strip barking or girdling killed off the trees [Alexander Humboldt noted in 1799 that for obtaining 11,000 Spanish pounds nearly 800 or 900 Cinchona trees were cut down every year]. Meanwhile the front-line warriors of the British Empire were  falling to malaria at an estimated 2 million a year and were at the mercy of Spanish supplies with the few trees left being closely guarded in South America. Markham's main role was to help solve the problem of malaria in British India and this even required covert actors - among them Charles Ledger who managed to smuggle some seeds of Cinchona to Kew. Other explorers were Dr. Spruce and Mr. Robert Cross who went after Loxa bark (Cinchona officinalis Linn.; syn. C. condaminea) and "Red Bark" (C. succirubra Pavon) in Ecuador while Mr. Pritchett searched in northern Peru; and  Markham and John Weir explored  the Calisaya region in Bolivia for Cinchona calisaya.

An illustration from 1862. The European man sitting in the group is Sir William Denison (after whom Francis Day named the pretty fish - "Miss Kerala" (Sahyadria denisonii ). To Denison's left and holding a spade is McIvor. McIvor helped transport trout for Day's project to introduce them into the Nilgiris. Day started off as an ornithologist before taking an interest in fish. He supported Hume's Sind bird survey.
Markham and his team managed to get some plants and these were established at Kew in greenhouses. Wardian cases were then used to transport the plants to India. It was however one thing to grow them inside a controlled environment and entirely another to grow them in a large enough scale. And that was where the skills and experimental approaches of William McIvor paid off. It was another saga to extract the active ingredient and produce concentrated drug that could be stored and transported where it was needed. Botanists, chemists and administrators, all got into action in this project and it is interesting that Sir George King (knighted for the quinine work) who headed the Calcutta botanical gardens and the cinchona project in Darjeeling (Mungpoo) credits A.O. Hume for his role in supporting the project. King was knighted for his role in setting up a system of quinine delivery via the postal system that would work out cheap enough anywhere in India. Markham writes about Hume's role in his 1880 book:

...result was due in no small degree to the action of Mr. A.O.Hume C.B, the Secretary to the Government of India in the Department of Revenue, Agriculture, and Commerce.

Mr. Hume saw that two millions of Her Majesty's subjects were annually living in India of low malarious fevers, of which fully half might he saved if we could put the chinchona febrifuge retail into every pansari's shop at 1 rupee per ounce. He calculated that ten tons a year at least should be forthcoming, or, on an average, 100 grains per man. Mr. Hume felt strongly on the subject, because he had had great practical experience of malarious fevers; because he had proved, in thousands of cases, that the chinchona febrifuge is a real remedy; and because we had triumphed over the cultivation difficulty, and could, at comparatively very moderate cost, ensure in ten years a bark crop sufficient to produce the ten tons required. He felt that nothing stood between us and the saving of countless multitudes from death, or grievous suffering, but an economical process of manufacture; and that, rightly considered, this is infinitely more important than any other question before the Government of India. It involves simply the possible saving of a million lives and of an immensity of suffering such as few can adequately realise. He urged that nothing should be allowed to come in the way of this great work, that it should not be paltered with, but that it should be taken in hand at once, in the very best way that could be discovered, and with the ablest instruments money and trouble could procure.

Davison could speak Tamil, "Burmese",
Malay and Hindi!
One of George King's assistants was a lad named William Ruxton Davison. King noticed that he had an eye for natural history and although Davison had trained in a bit of chemistry in the Nilgiris, he had moved into botany at Calcutta. Davison was born in Myanmar but after his father's death, he grew up as a boy in Ootacamund, schooled briefly under "Pope Iyer" (at his own school although he gave it up later and moved to Bishop Cotton's in Bangalore where he earned a reputation for caning students). King recommended Davison to Hume, and under Hume's training, he became one of the foremost ornithological observers of his time - although his method was in the old collection tradition - indeed much of Hume's collection was in fact made by Davison (while Hume was away on official work). Davison seems to have had a keen eye for ferns as well and he made collections of these for Hume's little-known botanical collection (now apparently with the BSI). Hume's botanical interest would be rekindled when Hume retired to London. After Hume's retirement from ornithology, Davison moved to Singapore (then called the Straits settlement) to head the Raffle's Museum. Davison seems to have done well here but after his wife's sudden death which occurred while he was out on an expedition, his mental health took a downturn. Suffering from depression, he is thought to have committed suicide (or in any case died) from an overdose of opium. This tragic story has only recently been unravelled by historian Kevin Tan in his book on the Singapore Natural History Museum (2015).

Apart from Davison, Hume had another major ornithological correspondent in J. Gammie at Mungpoo, Darjeeling who was in charge of the cinchona plantations. It appears that Gammie was a major collector of fauna and specimens from Mungpoo have gotten around the world since. (Some years ago there was a query for locality information for a specimen of Bengalia (a kleptoparasitic fly) from Mungpoo). There is very little known about J. A. Gammie though his son, George Alexander Gammie (1864-1935) is a better known botanist. Gammie senior collected plants, birds, insects, and reptiles for various collaborators and correspondents. He is remembered in Lycodon gammiei.
An odd cinchona tree
(presumably C. succirubra) in Ooty
being admired by Henry Noltie.

The cinchona project was obviously not a complete success as malaria managed to keep a grip (and still does today with the potential to save some wilderness areas) and the next big wave of work on the disease was by the surgeons and physicians of the Indian Medical Service. Many of them, with a completely new level of training in biology, contributed to the study of natural curiosities and contributed beyond their professional area of research.

The cinchona project had its impact well beyond India - even in its ornithology spin-offs. Imagine my surprise when I found that a comprehensive bibliography of cinchona cultivation was compiled in 1945 by R.E. Moreau, the brilliant ornithologist who worked in Africa as an accountant.

Note: Please note that tonic water today does not have the quinine levels needed for therapeutic use, so no it is not beneficial to your health! You can however have some fun by shining ultraviolet light on tonic-water and watch it fluoresce.

Postscript: There is an interesting paper on malaria research and birds - pointing out how birds were used for testing anti-malarials while also playing a key role in the plasmodia research of Ronald Ross. (Manwell, Reginald D. (1949) Malaria, birds and war. American Scientist 37(1):60-68.)

Further reading