The physicians in the court of King Charles II were apoplectic. The king had appointed Robert Talbor, a man they considered to be an unqualified charlatan, as his personal physician. Indeed, Talbor had no training as a physician, although truth be told, whatever training doctors had at the time was all about purging, bloodletting and using various herbs to restore the balance of the four bodily humours: blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. The humoral theory championed by Hippocrates and Galen held sway for some 2,000 years despite the lack of any scientific validity.
Talbor had been an apprentice to an apothecary in Cambridge, where he learned about the Jesuits having introduced a medicinal tree bark from South America to Europe around 1630. One story, almost certainly apocryphal, was told of the Countess of Chinchon, wife of the Spanish viceroy of Peru, being cured of what at the time was called “tertian fever” with a preparation made from this special bark. Tertian fever was so-called because the fever would cycle roughly every three days. Today we know it as malaria. The countess immediately ordered that the bark be given to the sick of Peru and sang its praises when she returned to Spain. This is when Jesuit Cardinal John de Lugo heard about the bark and took it for testing in Rome from where “Jesuit bark” spread throughout Europe. One of the problems with this romanticized story is that the countess never returned to Spain.
An account that has more historical evidence describes South American natives, who had to cross a river up to their necks in cold water, finding a remedy to stop themselves from shivering. They would drink a decoction of the bark in hot water. Jesuit missionaries learned of this practice and, reasoning by analogy, tried it for malaria. When they found that it worked, the missionaries introduced the bark to Europe. However, there is a problem with this story as well since quinine, the active ingredient in “Jesuit bark,” works against malaria by killing the parasite that causes the disease and would not be effective to stop shivering from the cold. In any case, the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus seems to have believed the Countess of Chinchon fable and named the tree “cinchona.”
The use of cinchona bark was mired in controversy. Physicians in general questioned its use since it did not have any purgative effect and, therefore, did not fit into the humoral theory of disease. Also, since there was no standardized way of administering the bark or its extracts, the remedy did not always work. Then along came Talbor who, in 1672, introduced a “secret remedy” against malaria in his book, A Rational Account of the Cause and Cure of Agues, in which he warned about problems that could befall sufferers who were treated with Jesuit bark. The kicker here is that the “secret remedy” was in fact cinchona bark, and Talbor had found a way to prepare a reliable extract. A French nobleman who had landed in Essex on his way to discuss battle plans against the Dutch with King Charles came down with malaria and heard about Talbor’s remedy. He was so impressed with the way he was cured that he recounted the experience to the king, who immediately sent for Talbor and was so taken with the man that he appointed him as his personal physician, drawing outrage and fierce criticism from the college of physicians.
When the son of Charles II’s cousin, Louis XIV of France, became ill with malaria, Charles dispensed Talbor to help. The boy was cured, and so was the queen of Spain who had also contracted the disease. Louis was so impressed that he offered Talbor a large sum to reveal the secret of the cure, to which he agreed as long as it would not be made public during his lifetime. When Talbor died at the age of 40, a wealthy man, Louis commissioned a book in which the secret was revealed to be cinchona bark steeped in rose leaves, lemon juice and wine. The remedy became popular until it was superseded by a preparation of almost pure quinine that Pierre-Joseph Pelletier and Joseph-Bienaimé Caventou had managed to isolate in 1820, initiating the large-scale manufacture of quinine and saving multitudes from the misery of malaria.
While Talbor displayed some elements of a charlatan with his insinuation of having found a “secret formula,” Charles II’s faith in the man paid off. Not only would Talbor’s product cure many in Europe, Charles himself would directly benefit when he came down with malaria. It’s interesting to note that Charles was a great proponent of science, having been tutored as a young man by William Harvey, the surgeon who first described the circulatory system. As king, Charles became acquainted with the works of Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle, and in 1662, he awarded a charter to the Royal Society, thereby establishing an organization that has been promoting excellence in science for the benefit of humanity for more than three centuries. Charles himself was greatly interested in science and even had a private chemistry lab. Unfortunately, some of his experiments involved distilling mercury, which could have contributed to his death, theorized to have been due to irreversible kidney disease possibly caused by mercury poisoning.
In his final days, Charles was subjected to bloodletting, purging and cupping, all useless, torturous treatments administered by doctors who had called Talbor a quack for using a remedy that actually worked.
Joe Schwarcz is the director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society (mcgill.ca/oss). He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Radio 800 AM every Sunday from 3 to 4 p.m.
The Right Chemistry: Once a weapon, methamphetamine is now a target
The Right Chemistry: The evolution of swimsuit technology
The Right Chemistry: Sparkling ‘crystals’ aren’t really crystals
The Right Chemistry: Why rhodium is the most precious of all metals