The next time you sip your gin and tonic, spare a thought for Doña Francisca Henríques de Ribera, countess of Chinchón and wife of the viceroy of Peru. When the beautiful countess lay languishing and feverish on her deathbed sometime around 1630, she was given a dose of a local “fever bark” and, surprisingly, recovered. So thankful was she for this miraculous cure that, the story goes, she returned to Spain to dispense the bark to the suffering of Europe. It may all sound somewhat fanciful, but the story was enough for the Swedish botanist Linnaeus to name both the tree and the genus after the countess (although he managed to drop the first “h” in the process, so it became Cinchona). It is the bark of the cinchona tree, and the powerful antimalarial quinine compounds it contains, that is famously the bitter flavoring in tonic water. Of course this did not happen overnight; the history of the links between cinchona, quinine, malaria, tonic water, and gin are much more complex and more fascinating than one might suspect, as Just the Tonic shows.
Like all the best books focusing on single foods or drinks, the fun is in the broader contextualization. Together, co-authors Kim Walker (student of the history of plant medicines) and Mark Nesbitt (curator of the Economic Botany Collection at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London) open up a series of different worlds to introduce us to the history of tonic water. They explore the nature of malaria and the slow voyage of discovery that led to the understanding of its transmission. We are also treated to a natural history of the tree itself, which, from the seventeenth century, was in great demand in Europe for treating fevers of all sorts. Indeed, when the Parisian pharmacist Auguste Delondre first set eyes on a specimen in the Peruvian Andes, he remarked: “That magnificent tree. For so long I had seen it in my dreams and now it was before me” (p.11). Long before the nature and causation of malaria were understood (early in the twentieth century) and long before the workings of quinine in blocking the actions of the malaria-causing parasite in the blood were appreciated (even now not perfectly understood), cinchona and its derivative quinine were being taken as both “preservative” and treatment for malaria.
Just the Tonic brings together three strands to tell a single story, mixing well-informed historical narrative and quirky anecdote. While the first part of the book focuses on quinine and its use against malaria, the second explores the cultural history of the most popular medium for administering the drug; that is, via carbonated water. In the process, we are treated to a (very) brief history of medicinal mineral waters, the rise of “aerated” or soda waters from the late eighteenth century, and the proliferation of “restorative” and “medicinal” tonic beverages—some highly alcoholic, others directed at the temperance movement—in the nineteenth century. These drinks were promoted, variously, as preventives, cures, and convalescent remedies; as stimulants either to the appetite (aperitifs) or to the digestion (digestives); and, eventually, as medicinal “tonics” and refreshing drinks in tropical climes.
The third and final part recounts the history of gin, in particular in its combination with tonic. This is perhaps better known, but the authors nonetheless manage to relate some curious occurrences along the way, such as the technologies used in procuring the necessary ice in the pre-refrigeration age. Throughout, the authors have aimed for a “magazine” style of presentation, with short articles and even shorter text-boxes inserted at regular intervals. If the overall impression is on the erratic side, this approach does have the virtue of allowing them to cover a wide range of topics. The asides are distracting but frequently fascinating (in a frustrating sort of way). Just as one is coming to grips with the wide array of cinchona species that nineteenth-century naturalists had to grapple with, one’s attention is drawn by a small text-box on the accidental invention of the color mauve (on page 46, if you are curious). In any case, the book is beautifully produced. It abounds with magnificent and sometimes surprising illustrations, all carefully chosen, coming from the unparalleled collections of Kew Gardens and the Wellcome Collection, both in London.