Death by bigotry

I Beseech You, in the Bowels of Christ, Think it Possible You May Be Mistaken

A book I am reading made passing reference to Oliver Cromwell’s refusal to take quinine for his malaria. The history of quinine is tangled and uncertain, but a few things are constant. Jesuit missionaries learned from Amerindians that the bark of the Cinchona tree could cure fever.1 It was taken up by Pope Urban VIII and spread through much of Europe as Jesuit’s bark or Jesuit’s powder.

Cromwell, of course was having none of that. He died in 1658, probably of malaria, convinced, like many of his countrymen, that the popish powder was a plot to undermine the Anglican church.

A knavish Cambridge man, Robert Tabor, helped the English to overcome their objections, with classic misdirection. Having apprenticed as an apothecary, Tabor set himself up as a feverologist in the malaria-ridden marshes of Essex. There he perfected the use of quinine, disguising it’s bitter taste with opium and wine. Knowing of quinine’s standing, however, he kept the recipe secret and railed against it in public:

Beware of all palliative cures, and especially of that known as Jesuits' Powder … for I have seen most dangerous effects following the taking of that medicine.

Having cured local people in Essex, he then cured Lord Normanby, who recommended him to Charles II when he had a bad bout of malaria (see Robert Talbor, Charles II, and Cinchona A Contemporary Document). That set Talbor on the road to fame and fortune, welcome in the royal houses of Europe. (Lots more details here and here.)

Why bring this up now? Let’s just say it struck a chord, what with quinine’s (and Talbor’s?) modern descendent hydroxychloroquine and you-know-whom and poor old Cromwell needlessly dying at 59 essentially of bigotry.

  1. One of the puzzles is that the parasite that causes malaria was not originally present in the New World; notwithstanding the fact that it appears to target Plasmodium’s metabolism, what is it doing in the tree, and what indigenous fevers did it cure, and how? Nature is wonderful. 

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