Richard Spruce had seen some strange villages since arriving in South America in 1849, but this one took the cake. It was a ghost town. Every door was shut tight against the hot, humid jungle, while inside people slumbered away the sunlight.
Being the adventurous sort, he couldn’t comprehend such laziness, not, that is, until he mopped his clammy brow. His hand returned smeared with squashed mosquitoes and his own bright red blood.
He reflected, not for the first time, that life in the jungle wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, all things considered. Charles Darwin had joyfully described the Brazilian rainforest as “a great wild, untidy, luxuriant hothouse.” The tales of Alfred Wallace, a fellow young botanist, absolutely dripped with adventure.
Money truly did grow on trees here – there was a fortune to be made by transporting unusual plant species to England, where new novelties for Victorian gardens fetched a pretty penny.
Plus, the trailblazers in taxonomy whispered, it was delightfully warm, warm being a most thrilling word to Brits.
Had they mentioned the innumerable insects? If so, he still hadn’t expected the particular, primal discomforts of living in a cloud of whining and dining mosquitoes. Likewise, he hadn’t realised that breathing the air’s rich humidity would be as drinking tepid whisky through a straw. Nor how hot the nights were, wrapped tight as a flower bud in his stockings and blanket with a handkerchief over the face to ward away bloodsucking bats.
Nonetheless, Richard Spruce was not one to fret. He was of unfazeable stock, and though inch of his bare skin was soon in welts (not to mention his unmentionables), he followed the river and its plethora of plants to plunder. The cloud of mosquitoes followed too.
It’s not surprising what happened next.
The fever came on suddenly; a shivering, sweating, aching fever that rendered him helpless, striking him down mid-step on the border of Venezuela and Colombia.
His guides carried him shaking to a village. He knew the symptoms, hell he’d seen it before, but he denied his own diagnosis. Though he had the cure in his pocket, quinine from the bark from the Cinchona tree, he was loath to take its bitter rescue. He didn’t want it to be malaria.
Like a pot of swamp water on the boil, was his brain, his temperature climbing like lianas, curling like fern fronds, perching like epiphytic orchids. Images sprung forth from his fertile mind. The first two days he flashed on those damn mosquitoes, a haze of infected blood cells bursting. It didn’t make sense! The mosquitoes had left him three days ago. Certainly it wasn’t malaria, certainly, for it had been weeks since he was around the bad air of stale water, giving the Italian term mal’aria. Still he kept seeing mosquitoes.
As the fever broke into freezing chills, Richard’s guides began to mutter. When those chills turned once more to fever, they sensed his impending demise and sold his scientific equipment for rum. The patient was in no condition to care.
Spruce was stuck on mosquitoes, thriving in stagnant water and stale air, their droning drilled through his brain. He shrunk to the size of a grain of pollen and was sucked up like whisky through a mosquito’s straw. Inside the mosquito gut (it sure was hot and sticky) blood cells burst to release hideous parasites. These sex cells, for he identified them thus as surely as an anther and stigma, combined inside the mosquito. In the gut wall they formed cysts full of eggs. Or were they seeds? Or ferns?
Whatever they were, they grew for over a week, and exploded (much like his mind) yielding youngsters that frolicked freely.
Richard wasn’t frolicking. By the twinges in his aching joints, he knew the pangs of an elderly mosquito carrying young parasites, which had moved to his salivary gland to yield virulent juices. Next time he ate, dipping his mosquito’s double straw through the skin, spitting and sucking simultaneously, he would administer his chemical cocktail – anaesthetics to dull the pain, anti-blood clotting agents and, of course, the parasites.
Through the whisky straw Richard swirled, straight to the liver. His own liver, human and wracked with heat. From the liver, parasites paraded to the blood cells. Inside they ate oxygen-carrying haemoglobin and ran round after round of asexual reproduction, like spores or strawberry runners, each strawberry red and juicy, dripping. Each round took three days to replicate, feast and rupture the blood cells, like clockwork, and his body followed the same ticking cycle, burning fever following freezing chills following fever. Tick. Tick. Tick.
From outside he heard the nurse employed for his care, drunkenly yell “die, you English dog, that we may have a merry valorio with your dollars.” Well may she want a valorio, or watch night, but Richard was no a corpse.
After fifteen days of dreaming fever, he relented. Malaria it was. He took the bark of Cinchona trees, which kept him alive (just) by reducing his extreme body heat and causing the haemoglobin-chomping parasites to choke on their own waste. Such sweet relief from such bitter bark.
Thirty-eight days after his collapse, Richard was alive, but exhausted. His full recovery took many months more though, naturally, he kept collecting plants once he found new equipment.
Trudging onwards, Richard felt naught but respect and gratitude for the fine tree, Cinchona (though he preferred moss as a general rule).
Ten years later, having bushwhacked his way through saucer-sized tarantulas and marching fire ants, Richard found himself in the Andes. Gone were the South American rainforests, here roamed high altitude winds and freezing snows. After so long in the heat, the extreme chilliness didn’t suit him at all. But, onwards and upwards, as they say, and he was here to hunt Cinchona trees.
The trees were in high demand by the British and Dutch, both needing supplies for their malaria-wracked colonies. They had no steady supply, as the species had never been cultivated. There were sincere concerns that people would harvest it into extinction.
Richard spent a cold, windswept year collecting seeds and growing young plants. Almost 700 seedlings, well wrapped in moss, were tended all the way to England by a gardener assigned to their care. From the survivors, more than two hundred thousand precious plants were sent on to grow in Indian plantations.
Richard’s success with the species that saved his life did nothing less than change the world, making the heart of Africa habitable and saving millions of lives – but in the end he paid for it with his own health. Another disease cost him the use of his limbs, and he spent the rest of his days on a small pension in Britain.
Today, malaria kills around two million people each year and infects 200 million more. It has quite possibly killed more people throughout history than all our wars and plagues combined. Quinine, along with other chemicals, is still used for cures and prevention, and is gathered from the decedents of Richard Spruce’s trees.
Drinking notes: Enjoy this true tale with warm whisky or gin and tonic. Small quantities of Quinine are added to some brands of tonic water for flavour. Fluorescent, the chemical glows under black light. Many thanks to highly informative Flower Hunters by Mary and John Gribbin for the biography of Richard Spruce.