May 24, 2019

How Have Plants Shaped Human Societies?

“Quinine (Scientific name: Cinchona) is a plant that has influenced the course of human history. Used for centuries by the indigenous people of the Andes as a cure for fevers, Cinchona became known to Jesuits stationed in Peru in the early seventeenth century. The “Jesuit powder” was subsequently introduced to Europe as a medicine against malaria and remained the only effective treatment well into the twentieth century.

Due to its medicinal properties, Cinchona was a key focus of many Spanish botanical expeditions to South America, including those by Hipólito Ruiz López and José Antonio Pavón, and by José Celestino Mutis. Indeed, so desirable was quinine to the botany of empire that the Spanish forbade the export of Cinchona bark from their territories in 1778 upon pain of death. Yet a reliable supply of quinine remained of great economic and military significance to the British and the Dutch, who succeeded in obtaining seeds and seedlings from South America by stealth.

Britain prospected Peruvian bark trees and grew them in India, having first transplanted them to Kew, one of many botanical gardens that served as a center for medical and colonial botany. In fact, the success of British rule in India depended partly on the control of malaria through the establishment of local Cinchona plantations. In Jules Verne’s 1874 fantasy novel The Mysterious Island, the sulfate of quinine that miraculously saves the life of one of the main characters turns out to be a gift from the reclusive Captain Nemo. Yet far from being a pure gift, Cinchona, like so many other botanical discoveries, was both a cure for suffering and an instrument of power.

While the story of Cinchona is well known, having been studied by historians of botany, empire, science, medicine and art (including Lucile Brockway, J.R. McNeill and Londa Schiebinger), the stories and travels of many other plants remain to be told. To fill that gap, Dumbarton Oaks and JSTOR are combining their scholarly and digital expertise to launch the Plant Humanities Initiative, an endeavor generously supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Our joint aim is to advance plant humanities, the interdisciplinary field that explores and communicates the unparalleled significance of plants to human culture.”

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