Biocultural collections and networks of knowledge exchange in the 19th century: the quest for quinine

Lead Research Organisation: Royal Holloway, University of London
Department Name: Geography

Abstract

Malaria has been described by WHO as the 'greatest killer disease in human history'. Although its causation was not understood until the end of the 19th century, its symptoms of fever have been recognised since antiquity. In the period from the 1630s to 1930s, by far the most effective treatment used in Europe and its imperial territories was the quinine alkaloids, contained in the bark of the cinchona tree. Cinchona trees grow high on the eastern slopes of the Andes, and thus for two centuries import of cinchona bark was constrained by uncertain, often monopolistic supply chains, and by limited knowledge of the botany and chemistry of the tree. However, in the period 1850-1870 alkaloid-rich trees were identified, collected and transplanted, leading to the establishment of large plantations in India, Java and throughout the tropics, and the saving of millions of lives.
Although the outcomes of this story are clear, the crucial processes that enabled effective bioprospection have been barely researched; Honigsbaum's work on transplantation and Veale's on the Indian plantations simply reflect the beginning and end of the story. In particular, it remains unclear how the botany and chemistry of cinchona were resolved, and in what ways this new understanding shaped an effective programme of plant exploration and the development of standardised forms of quinine for Indian and European use and export. The project seeks to demonstrate the value of collections-based evidence in addressing such questions. Preliminary work by Walker (named student for this project) and Nesbitt on Kew's Economic Botany Collection shows that the circulation of bark specimens in and out of London was fundamental to the development of new knowledge. Reflecting well-established ways of working and patterns of exchange of specimens among quinologists (malaria experts), the specimens themselves are heavily annotated (often with alkaloid analyses) and can be linked to archival records which document the development of key networks. John Eliot Howard, prominent pharmaceutical wholesaler and independent scientist, emerges as a key figure connecting the geopolitical imperatives of the India Office, the commercial pharmaceutical sector, botanists at Kew, and analytical chemists in London and India.
The methodology of the project is grounded in Kew's archival and object collections. The project will start with an assemblage approach to the development of the Kew cinchona collection (the largest in the world), and consider how sub-collections and specimens map onto archive and library material at Kew, London Metropolitan Archives and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (which between them house most of Howard's papers, and many official reports). This will form the basis for case studies of the successful transfer of trees and development of medicines. Research in selected European collections will provide further data on specimen circulation.
The project is framed within the National Productivity Investment Fund's emphasis on the study of medical and industrial innovation. It is designed to unlock the stories and outreach potential of a museum collection of immense significance for 19th century health and the economy. It also responds directly to the emphasis on interdisciplinary research: the co-location of the project will enable strong interaction with STEM botanists at Kew and its overseas partners (e.g. at Copenhagen) while drawing on approaches from a wide range of humanities fields including historical geography, history of science and medicine, imperial history and environmental history.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description New Scholars Award
Amount £500 (GBP)
Organisation Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry (SHAC) 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 08/2018 
End 09/2019
 
Description Economic Botany Department, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew 
Organisation Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution My research contributes to the understanding, display and use of cinchona specimens in the Economic Botany Collection and the herbarium. From my thesis projects will be planned for follow up research and a significant amount of information will feed back into resources such as the collections catalogue.
Collaborator Contribution Kew has contributed access to its collections, in-house research facilities and training, as well as the co-supervision of the Economic Botany research lead, Professor Mark Nesbitt, and advice from staff in other departments at Kew including the herbarium and library, art and archives.
Impact Publications: 1. Walker & Nesbitt, Just the tonic: A natural history of tonic water (2019) 2. Canales et al (2019). Historical chemical annotations of Cinchona bark collections Journal of Ethnopharmacology. Engagement activities: including participation in Kew Science Festival 2019; Open House Day 2019; events, interviews and podcasts linked to publications; participation in symposium at Serpentine Gallery
Start Year 2017
 
Description BSHS PG Panel 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact BSHS PG
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Cinchona in the Museum of Economic Botany - Open House 2019 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Participation in the Open House weekend aimed to open the doors for the old Museum of Economic Botany (Now the School of Horticulture), which is normally closed, and recreate its 19th century use as a museum. Members of the public could engage and ask questions of the experts on various research projects set out as miniature exhibitions. This included a stand highlighting the cinchona research being undertaken in this award. Historic and handling objects allowed a story to be told about the collections, research and the importance of plants as medicines.

Open house is a popular weekend for members of the public but those in related industries also attended, including staff from the science museum, historians, artists and scientists who had come to develop knowledge about Kew's research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://openhouselondon.open-city.org.uk/listings/3331
 
Description Kew Science Festival 2019 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Kew's annual Science Festival is an opportunity for families of all ages to get a closer look at what research we do as part of an interactive and fun day out. As part of this event a stand called 'Just the tonic' was developed with 4 organised activities to allow children to interact with research on Cinchona being undertaken as part of the award. Using the example of cinchona and its use for malaria and tonic water, families discovered the importance of Kew's large historic botanical collections, and why plants are vital resources for answering food and health questions. Through 4 hands-on experimenting using microscopes, taste tests, UV lighting (to show quinine's inflorescence) and a digital spectrometer, families engaged in a fun way with how scientists past and present use plants for drug discovery. Children were rewarded with a sticker to show they completed tasks and parents received a handout for further research.

17,000 people attended, and over 1,000 interacted directly via the stand. To this number can be added many adults and other members of the public who observed and asked questions but may have not performed the activities which were primarily aimed at children. response was positive and many reported new knowledge about the importance of cinchona. and its impact on history.

Media coverage was high being a large Kew summer-holidays event, with national newspapers advertising and reviewing the event as well as media personalities such as TV Presenter Stefen Gates highlighting the tonic stand in the main lectures, and BBC Gardener James Wong creating a popular twitter thread regarding the history of tonic water.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.kew.org/about-us/press-media/kew-science-festival-returns-for-2019
 
Description New Scientist - Interview and review of book - Issue 3261 -December 2019 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Paine, S. (2019). A toast to tonic. New Scientist. 3261, pages 62-64.

New Scientist writer Stephanie Pain highlighted the book for the Christmas edition of the New Scientist. Stephanie not only highlighted the history of cinchona found in the book (See publications: Just the Tonic), but also highlighted Kew's collections and expanded on research being undertaken in the PhD project including analysis of cinchona chemistry and genetics.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.newscientist.com/issue/3261/
 
Description POdcast interview - Time to eat the dogs 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact This was an interview for the US based, academic podcast 'Time to eat the dogs' discussing findings from my PhD thesis on cinchona and its impact on empire and colonialism. Aimed at awareness building on an academic audience, the website attracts 450,000 views, with 1800+ subscribers, and 2000-3000 downloads per week.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Podcast interview - Foodie Pharmacology 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Episode titel: Just the Tonic with Kim Walker and Mark Nesbitt
Internationally renowned Dr Cassandra Quave of Emory University, Georgia, invited us to discuss my work on cinchona and the book 'Just the tonic'. The podcast is US based, so provided a channel to new audiences working in American science and medicine, though her group is international and the reach is broader.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL http://etnobotanica.us/podcast/episode-26
 
Description Public Lecture, podcast and film: Linnean Society, The Botanical History of the Gin and Tonic 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This was a public event to 100 participants, with a recorded podcast and video. The video will be on Youtube. Event description:' Kim Walker and Prof Mark Nesbitt FLS, Kew botanists and authors of Just the tonic: A natural history of tonic water (Kew Publishing, 2019) explore the history of the popular effervescent mixer. They believe that tonic water has been the unjustly overshadowed partner in the famous gin and tonic. The cocktail is thought of as a quintessentially English drink, yet its origins lie in the cinchona trees of eastern slopes of the Andes and the malarial landscapes of Asia. In this richly illustrated talk, Kim and Mark cut through centuries of legends to reveal a history of botany, medicine, empire and drinking to discover how the tree came together with alcohol and soda to create the perfect gin and tonic.'
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.linnean.org/meetings-and-events/events/the-botanical-history-of-the-gin-and-tonic
 
Description Radio Interview - Citizen Science, BBC World Service 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact For the BBC World Service show, 'Citizen science,' the question had been asked 'Where do medicines come from?' I was invited to the show to describe the origin of plant based medicines, and highlight the importance of cinchona and its alkaloids, the subject of my PhD thesis. The interview included making up a tonic. Audience numbers are in the ten thousands.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/w3csz1v9
 
Description Symposium: The shape of a circle in the mind of a fish with plants 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The event was a large symposium organised by the Serpentine gallery and attracted 800 attendees in person as well as a live stream audience of around 2,000.

The event description: 'The Serpentine Galleries presented the third installment of this symposium and research project, presented as part of the General Ecology project. The Shape of a Circle in the Mind of a Fish with Plants brought together scientists, anthropologists, artists and theologians around plant sentience, plant intelligence, communication with the vegetal world and forms of mysticism and healing.'

Kim Walker was invited to be in conversation with 2019 Frieze Award winner, Kapwani Kiwanga and Natural History Museum Principal Curator, Miranda Lowe. Drawing on their research, they discussed issues around plants, bio-piracy, acts of resistance and slavery.

The event was reviewed widely in arts magasines and also appeared in the guardian https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/may/20/the-shape-of-a-circle-in-the-mind-of-a-fish-with-plants-review-immersive-world-of-salmon-and-sound

Kapwani Kiwanga: https://frieze.com/fair-programme/kapwani-kiwanga
Miranda Lowe: https://www.nhm.ac.uk/our-science/departments-and-staff/staff-directory/miranda-lowe.html
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.serpentinegalleries.org/exhibitions-events/shape-circle-mind-fish-plants