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Recent Rare Book Acquisition

Posted On November 07, 2013 | 12:05 pm | by kathys | Permalink
Jacobo Zannichelli’s El hypocastano, ó castaño de Indias (1774)

A recent addition to the Dumbarton Oaks Rare Book Collection sheds light on the eighteenth-century search to discover substitutes for rare and valuable medicinal plants—in this case, horse chestnut as a substitute for cinchona (quinine). In El hypocastano, ó castaño de Indias, verdadero sucedaneo de la quina, arbol del Oriente, a Spanish translation of a letter from 1733, botanist Jacobo Zannichelli (1695–1759) proclaims the good fortune and glory of having discovered a new febrifuge. Zannichelli details his observations and experiments, conducted over a period of more than three years; this research convinced him that the horse chestnut was a suitable substitute for the cinchona plant in fighting fever in human beings.

The indigenous people of the Andes shared the cinchona plant with Jesuits stationed in Peru in the early seventeenth century. The “Jesuit powder”—also widely known as Peruvian bark, Loja bark, and fever bark (and today called quinine)—cured several European nobles of malaria. Until the 1930s, quinine was the only effective malaria treatment. As there was no synthetic alternative, cinchona trees were an invaluable commodity for empires, such as the British and Dutch, that held tropical territories. In the eighteenth century, however, cinchona was nearly eradicated from South American tropical forests through over-collecting. There followed numerous attempts to grow cinchona in Europe or in its warmer colonies, or to find substitutes.
Scientific reports indicating that the horse chestnut was successful in treating pulmonary illnesses in horses had initially aroused Zannichelli’s curiosity about the plant’s effectiveness in treating humans. The tree was already an established ornamental and shade tree in European gardens, where Zannichelli had ample occasion to study it. He began by drying a cutting from the tree, distilling a powder through several processes, and observing the reaction of the powder when mixed with acids and bile. Convinced that the horse chestnut was a febrifuge similar to cinchona, he gave it to human subjects suffering from fever and other ills, and, by his accounts, restored them to health.
The publication includes an appendix by a different author (cited as “the nephew of Nigrisoli, doctor of Ferrara,” possibly Francesco Maria [1648–1727]), which discusses the various means used to adulterate pure cinchona powder with cherry, almond, aloe, and other plant matter. The appendix author claimed that these “abominable practices of deceit put public health at risk,” and attempted to teach doctors to distinguish the rarer, pure cinchona from false or impure preparations.
Both the new acquisition on the horse chestnut and a work dedicated on the cinchona plant can be viewed in the online library exhibit “The Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century.”