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The Jesuit's Bark

Galileo's clash with the church over Copernicism is very famous. Key players in this clash were Pope Urban VIII and the Jesuits of the Collegio Romano. They were also players in another scientific drama unfolding at the same time. This drama would determine the life and death of millions in the centuries that followed. It would help shape the modern world, enabling the future European colonization of Africa and the completion of the Panama canal. It was the story of the Jesuit's Bark, a remedy for malaria.

Urban VIII was the driving force behind the early search for a cure for mal'aria. Pope Urban had personal reasons for wanting a cure. In 1623, just as he was being selected as Pope, he was stricken by malaria. For months he was too weak to manage the full duties expected of a pope. He was one of the lucky ones. Eight cardinals from the conclave that selected him as Pope had died from the dreaded disease. It is hardly surprising that Pope Urban would seek a cure and instruct the Jesuit missionaries to learn all they could about the medicines in the new territories. [_1_] The search bore fruit very quickly, in part because the careful observations of the Jesuit naturalists in the Americas, and partly from pure luck. Augustino Salumbrino, a Jesuit apothecary in Lima, had noticed the Quecha natives in the foothills of the Andes using the bark of the cinchona tree to fight off chills . The center of the period map below is the area where Augusto observed the Quechas. Thinking that the bark might be used to fight off the chills that accompany malaria, he arranged for samples to be sent to Rome. The doctors in Rome discovered that the bark did more than fight off chills, it was actually a remedy for the disease. The active ingredient of cinchona was quinine, which is still used to fight off the disease.


Antique Map of Peru circa 1635

New medicines need a champion. The first champion of the Jesuit's bark was a Spanish Jesuit Cardinal, Cardinal Lugo. In fact, early names for the medicine was "Cardinal's Powder" and "de Lugo's Powder". There was resistance to the remedy. 'Miracle' cures are met with suspicion because they are often scams. And miracle cures do not work if they are applied to the wrong subjects or with the wrong dosages. The Jesuits seemed to take a reasoned approach to this resistance. Cardinal Lugo asked Gabrielle Fonseca, physician to the pope, to conduct an efficacy study in 1643. The Jesuits were sufficiently satisfied by its efficacy that they recommended its wider use. Cardinal Lugo used his own funds to provide the drug for the poor of Rome. By 1649, there were instructions on proper dosages and application in the Schedula Romana.


Jesuits Bark:Encyclopedia Brittanica Plate

The efficacy study and the recommendations of the Jesuits' did not mean that the remedy stopped being controversial. The association of the remedy with the Jesuits made it more controversial. There was considerable anti-Catholic sentiment in Northern Europe and England at the time, and many suspected anything associated with the Church. Oliver Cromwell, who hated all things Catholic, is an example of this resistance. When he fell ill to malaria in 1658, he refused to take the 'popish powder' and died as a result. The confusion over proper application of the bark continued to be a problem as well. Jean-Jacques Chifflet, a famous doctor, wrote a pamphlet critical of the powder when his own application of the remedy failed.

There was another reason for controversy. The Jesuit's Bark was a serious challenge to the status quo in medical practice. At the time, Galen was to medicine what Aristotle was to physics. Galen believed that all fevers could be treated the same way, that they were the result of an imbalance of humours, and that correcting this imbalance took several months. Jesuit's Bark only acted on specific fevers. The Bark also acted much more quickly than Galenic remedies. Popular histories often caricature the Church and Jesuits as blind defenders of the status quo. In this case, they were the ones leading the challenge.

The story of the Jesuit's Bark is an interesting backstory to the Galileo Affair. But which story should be the backstory? Jesuit's Bark and its derivative, quinine sulphate, has directly affected the lives of millions of people since its discovery. It has indirectly affected billions. It is credited with enabling the European colonization of Africa and the successful completion of the Panama canal. The Panama canal was successfully completed by the U.S after a failed attempt by the French. The Americans provided the common worker with quinine and the French did not [_2_] . Today, 3% of worldwide shipping traffic passes through the canal. In contrast, the Galileo Affair centred on one man and his defense of a model (the Copernican Model) against all other models, including Kepler's Model. Scientists eventually adopted Kepler's model. Galileo's most important legacy to science is in classical mechanics not astronomy.


Copyright Joseph Sant (2016).
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1. Fiammetta Rocco, Harper Collins, The Miraculous Fever-Tree, , Cover Text
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2. Fiammetta Rocco, Harper Collins, The Miraculous Fever-Tree, , 25-83
This book by Fiammetta Rocco, relates her personal family history with malaria, then traces the history of the discovery and application of the cure for malaria, quinine. The original cure was a quinine-rich bark which became known as Jesuit's Bark. The book also relates some important battles which were largely decided by the disease and not by generals.
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