Galileo's clash with the church over Copernicism is a drama that is often replayed in the media and history books. The actions taken in the chambers of Pope Urban VIII and in the Jesuit Collegio Romano in the 1620's and early 1630's have become a vivid symbol of the clash between church and science. There was another scientific drama unfolding at the exactly the same time and in the same chambers. The result of this drama would decide on life, health and death for 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 search for and discovery of a remedy for malaria, the Jesuit's Bark.
It would be the same pope, Urban VIII, that would be the driving force behind finding 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.
The use of Jesuit's bark would spread through Europe and around the world. Only a few decades after its introduction to Europe, Ramazzini was publicly comparing its importance to medicine with the importance of gunpowder to warfare. Jesuit's bark and its derivatives (quinine sulphate) would help shape the modern world, including enabling the European colonization of Africa and the completion of the Panama canal [_2_] .
In the Galileo Affair, Pope Urban and the Jesuits are often caricatured as blind defenders of the status quo. But the proven effectiveness of Jesuit's Bark was a serious challenge to the status quo. 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.
The story of the discovery of the Jesuit's Bark is not widely known. This is surprising. Stories of miracle cures tend to become very popular with the public. The story of how Pasteur discovered the cure for rabies, and how Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin are two of the more widely known scientific stories. With the Jesuit's Bark we have a story more exotic than Pasteur's discovery, and as serendipitous as Fleming's discovery of penicillin. This is the story of the discovery of a remedy for a disease of lowlands and swamps where it shouldn't have been found; in the mountains of Peru, where the disease did not naturally occur. The reason for the obscurity of the story may have little to do with the public. While the public may have had an appetite for this type of story, historians of science did not. There was little interest in either investigating the discovery or discussing it.
The part of this story that sets it apart from other stories of important medical discoveries is who did the discovering. It wasn't famous scientists or famous doctors. For the most part they were Roman Catholic clergy or laymen. This simply didn't fit well with one of the popular narratives in the study of the history of science. For much of the the last two hundred years, the study of the history of science in Western Europe and the United States has been dominated by a belief that the church and science were natural enemies. This started with Auguste Comte in the early 1800's and continued until the last few decades of the twentieth century (see Sarton: A Case for Bias). So a story where Catholic clergy make an important discovery and the Catholic Church itself was involved in the medicine's spread simply didn't agree with the prevailing bias of most historians. Worse still was that the story was closely tied with the signature proof of conflict between church and science, the Galileo Affair. We had the same figures who were being painted as anti-scientific (Pope Urban and the Jesuits) acting as major players in one of the most important scientific advances of the seventeenth century. Maybe the signature proof wasn't a signature proof, but just one instance of conflict. One instance amongst many instances of both conflict and active support of scientific inquiry.