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    Good God, when I consider the melancholy fate of so many of botany's votaries, I am tempted to ask whether men are in their right mind
    who so desperately risk life and everything else through the love of collecting plants.
        -Carolus Linnaeus, Glory of the Scientist

If you've ever read James Clavell's great novel, Tai-Pan--and if you haven't, shame on you--you'll recall that when Dirk Struan's beloved Chinese mistress, May-may, comes down with malaria, the proud Protestant trader is forced to go hat in hands to the Catholic bishop to secure a cure for her : cinchona bark.  As Clavell renders the tale, only the Catholics, thanks to the presence of their missionaries in South America have access and no the secrets of this marvelous remedy.

Well, comes now Mark Honigsbaum to reveal the remarkable true story behind cinchona bark, of its discovery, of the realization that the quinine that can be derived from the bark can cure malaria (though certain trees produce more quinine), of the attempts of the natives to maintain a monopoly on it, and of the colonial adventurers who set out to steal it from them.  The bulk of the book is taken up with exciting expeditions into the Andes in search of the bark, led by men like Richard Spruce, Charles Ledger, and Clements Markham.  But these stories eventually begin to run together and as they pile atop one another the feats performed no longer seem so remarkable.  The author also has something of an axe to grind, referring to the eventual illicit exportation of the cinchona trees to Java and India which broke the South American monopoly as one of history's greatest robberies.  this has the unfortunate effect of making the heroes of the book come across simultaneously as villains.  Moreover, it seems a debatable point whether the "robbery" was justified, since the original bark exporters proved unable to meet demand and since for those with malaria access to the medicine it produces can be a matter of life and death.

Even today malaria still kills as many from one and a half to three million people a year and Mr. Honigsbaum ends with a section on the current science and the ongoing search for a cure.  One of the more promising lines of research appears to involve a DNA vaccine, taking DNA from the mosquito-born parasite that causes malaria and injecting it into muscle in order to get the immune system to produce T cells that will attack the parasite when it appears in the body.  this is all interesting enough, but has the feel of having been tacked on to flesh out the book.

Ultimately this seems a case where less would have been better.  For instance, had Mr. Honigsbaum just told the story of one of the cinchona hunters.  Or perhaps he might have gone the historical novel route and combined some of the characters.  As it stands, while much of the background on malaria is fascinating and the various searches for cinchona are exciting, the narrative ends up being a bit too diffused.  One never really has a sense that the author had a necessary end point he was trying to reach, and so he seems to be meandering.  Some of the meanders prove worthwhile in their own rights, but the attention does begin to wander.  It's a book worth reading but it's frustrating in that one suspects a better book lurks within.


Grade: (C+)


See also:

Book-related and General Links:
    -AUTHOR SITE : Mark Honigsbaum (Written Voices)
    -VIDEO : Mark Honigsbaum discusses his book "The Fever Trail: In Search of the Cure for Malaria," at the National Zoo in Washington, DC (C-SPAN)
    -REVIEW : of The Fever Trail (Ed Regis, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Fever Trail (William Beatty, ALA Booklist)
    -REVIEW : of The Fever Trail (Robin McKie, The Observer)
    -REVIEW : of The Fever Trail (Beryl Lieff Benderly, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of The Fever Trail (Adrian Barnett, New Scientist)
    -REVIEW : of The Fever Trail (Stephen Bodio, Minneapolis Star Tribune)
    -REVIEW : of The Fever Trail ( Laurie Edwards, Culture Dose)
    -REVIEW : of The Fever Trail (CLAIRE PANOSIAN DUNAVAN, LA Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Fever Trail (Claire Panosian Dunavan, Scientific American)

    -ARTICLE : FEVER REDUCTION MAY BE KEY TO COMBATING MALARIA : Unpleasant though they are, fevers are the body's way of fighting infection. In the case of malaria, however, that defense mechanism may backfire. Researchers have discovered that fevers enable malaria-
infected red blood cells to stick to the walls of blood vessels, which can lead to death. (Scientific American)