Roman Fevers

01 Oct

Malaria, from the medieval latin for bad-air, is an ancient disease, having preyed upon tropical and sub-tropical civilizations since the beginning of recorded history. And each have tried their own way of treating the problem.

According to good old Herodotus, garlic was commonly given to builders in Ancient Egypt to ward off the disease. Mummies have been found which show characteristic signs of malarial anemia.

If malaria had existed in the New World prior to the European introduction, it would have been the people of the Andes who would have had the best hand in fighting malaria. The native cinchona tree contains quinine, one of the first and most useful anti-malarial drugs. The natives had used it on their own to help stop shivering, but it was the Jesuit priest Agostino Salumbrino who first thought to prescribe it to malaria victims. This bitter remedy which earned the moniker Jesuit’s Bark when missionaries started exporting large amounts of extract back to Europe in the 1640’s.

The Chinese tried a similar tack, using sweet wormwood, qing ho in Mandarin, a tall fern-like plant. Extracts have been recorded in medicine since before 162 BC. Modern techniques, although initially disappointing, have isolated the compound artemisinin from the plant, which may prove to be very effective at attacking drug resistant malaria.

The Zulu simply avoided the problem. Mosquitoes breed in low lying valleys and swamps, the Zulu kept themselves and their cities in the dry hills. Invading Europeans weren’t so wise to the problem and consequently suffered for it. Disappointing, since even the Greeks and the Ancient Indian surgeon Sushruta managed to connect the disease to biting insects and standing water.

Sources: HHMIGuns, Germs, and Steel by Dr. Jared Diamond, CDCWiki: Malaria History, Wood (1975)


Posted by on October 1, 2011 in Medicine


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2 responses to “Roman Fevers

  1. R.A.W.

    November 18, 2011 at 6:36 pm

    There’s good evidence:

    that malaria was not present in the Pre-Columbian New World. Thus, the fact that quinine (a Ne World plant) deals effectively with the condition is probably not some old lore of traditional medicine; it’s pure luck that it got discovered at all.

    Considering the enormous impact of quinine; opening Africa to colonization by Europeans, this is quite a discovery to make by chance.

    • theglyptodon

      November 18, 2011 at 11:49 pm

      I stand corrected, thanks for posting that. Updated the text. That makes the Jesuit’s mental leap even more interesting.


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