How Quinine (Anti-Malarial Drug) Got Its Name

It is a reproduction of a portion from A Critical Review of the Basic Facts in the History of Cinchona by Dr. Jaime Jaramillo-Arango, former Rector of the National Faculty of Medicine of Bogota.

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The etymological origin of the word ‘Quina’ or ‘Quinaquina’- both words are used indiscriminately in medical literature-has been the subject of different interpretations. In his Memoir Sur l’rlrbre du Quinquina, already mentioned, which he sent from Ecuador to the Royal Academy of Sciences of Paris, where it was read in July 1738, La Condamine suggests its derivation from the word Quina-ai. This word, he states, has been found in an old dictionary of the Quichua tongue printed in Lima in 1614, and he gives the Spanish meaning as ‘Mantelilla India’, a kind of cape or shawl with which the Indians covered themselves. The Quichua vocabulary, in the opinion of the same author, being a very limited one, he concluded that this word may have come to be used, by analogy, for the bark which is the cloak or covering of the tree. The bark, within this line of thought although this is not an observation of La Condamine-would have constituted for the Indians the bark par excellence, or ‘Bark of Barks’ (cortex corticorum). Like most suggestions of amateur etymologists, La Condamine’s explanation is too plausible and picturesque to be true. 

Haggis, in the classic paper to which we have referred so often, tells us that he not only has consulted the dictionary referred to by La Condamine but also an earlier edition of 1604, both of which are in the British Museum. In neither edition could he find the word Quina or Quinaquina, but neither could he find La Condamine’s word Quina-ai. The only words at all similar to be found in either dictionary, he states, were Quinray-lliella in that of 1604 and Quinaay-lliella in that of 1614. Both editions give the same meaning for these words, that is, ‘Mantellina de india’, which in English means ‘an Indian head-shawl’.

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Moreover, adds Haggis, the word ‘lliella ’ appears independently in both vocabularies, and its meaning is given as ‘Manta de India, la que cubre la saya’, or, in English, ‘an Indian mantle which covers the skirt ’. This meaning being almost identical with that of the compound word suggested to Haggis that the suffix alone bears the full significance implied by the double word. From his own source-we continue quoting Haggis-it is thereby shown that La Condamine’s deduction is erroneous. 

On his part, based upon the fact that in both editions of the vocabulary he consulted the name ‘Quinua-Quinua’ is to be found, with the Spanish equivalent given as ‘a certain leguminous plant thus called’; in that the fruit of the Balsam Tree has at first sight the appearance of a legume (fruit or seeds that grow in pods), and in the long known fact that in Quichua the duplicate word very commonly suggests a substance, tree or plant thought to possess remedial virtues or any other striking particularity, such as being poisonous, but primarily the first condition, Haggis attributes the origin of the word ‘Quina-Quina’ to the Quichua word ‘Quinua-Quinua’.

We support Haggis’s view of La Condamine’s theory, for surely to derive the word ‘Quina’, in French ‘Quinquina’, from the compound word ‘Quinaay-lliclla’, the only one that appears in the 1614 Dictionary referred to and no other Quichua vocabulary of the same date is known-as having the meaning to which La Condamine alludes (‘Mantelilla India’ for ‘Mantellina de india’ : in Spanish the two expressions have a certain homology), involves a process of bisection hardly justified in etymological science. Nor do we wish to dispute Haggis’s affirmation upon the medical significance that the duplicate names very often had for the Indians, of which we could give numerous instances.

However, we have some critical remarks to offer to Haggis’s identification of ‘a certain leguminous plant thus called’ with the Balsam Tree. The Indians most certainly must have been familiar with many leguminous plants, and it is doubtful whether the Balsam Tree was the only tree whose fruits had the appearance of a legume. Why, in applying a name to a tree so well known to them and so greatly valued by them for its properties, should they have chosen to refer to it by a ‘metaphor’ or ‘homology’, by such a nondescript and unsatisfactory term of distinction based upon the character of its fructification? Quinnua, quinua or Quinuaiquinua (that, as is shown by the photographs which accompany this study is actually how respectively the word appears in the 1604 and 1614 editions of the Vocabulary in question) a certain leguminous plant thus called’; from which, the tree whose fruit resembled a legume, is the original ‘Quinaquina’ or Myroxylon peruiferurn of the aboriginal Indians: the argument is not very convincing. Concerning this word, furthermore, if in the above-mentioned Vocabulary, and even in an earlier one, of 1586, the word appears duplicated, with the meaning of ‘a certain leguminous plant thus called’, in the 1603 edition, the entry is made in the simple form, i.e., as ‘Quinua’, with exactly the same meaning.


To come back to La Condamine: he must have felt wherein lay the weak point of his argument, for he excuses it by asserting that the Quichua vocabulary was very limited. In judging the Indians incapable of assigning an individual and distinctive term to the Balsam Tree, Haggis, by implication, follows him in this. As a matter of interest, we have personally computed the number of words in Fray Juan Martinez’s Quichua Vocabulary : it contains 5008 words. And that of Father Diego Gonzalez Holguin, of the Company of Jesus, edited also in the ‘City of the Kings’ (Lima), in 1608, by Francisco del Canto, contains more than 12,000. The average vocabulary of a well-educated Englishman contains some 5000 words; of a writer or professor some 10,000 words; basic English is founded on 850 words, and English has one of the richest vocabularies in the world. From this comparison it will be manifestly seen that the inferences of La Condamine and of Haggis, implicating paucity of vocabulary, have no real weight. 

Is there any other etymological alternative for the words ‘quina’ or ‘quinaquina’, with which at present the bark of the ‘Fever Tree’ (Arbor febrifuga peruviana; lignum febrium; lignum vitae) is specifically designated, and with which the natives, it is to-day beyond doubt, referred to the Balsam Tree? In our efforts to discover the etymological origin of this word ‘Quinaquina’ we have examined all the early Quichua vocabularies and dictionaries which are extant: but we must confess that the results have not been commensurate with our efforts. As far as it has been possible for us to carry out our research into the matter, there remains only one other alternative which might deserve consideration and be worthy of further investigation, although this alternative is also susceptible of a weighty objection. In all four editions of the Vocabulary which we attribute to Fray Juan Martinez, we found two words which have hitherto hardly been mentioned. They are : ‘ Quenua ’, given in all editions as a ‘ Tree thus called’, and ‘ Quenuaquenua’ designation for a ‘ Grove of this [tree] ’. Father de Torres Rubio’s Vocabulary also gives this word ‘ Quenua’, with the same meaning ‘ Tree thus called’. If, in transcribing these two words into Castilian, it is borne in mind (a) that, according to the established habit, the letter ‘e’ of the first syllable of various Quichua words beginning with ‘Que’ has generally been substituted in the spoken and written language by an ‘i’-thus the original name of the language of the natives is not ‘Quichua’ but ‘Quechua’ from ‘Quecchua or  Qquechua ’ name of a nation, which extended over five provinces ; hot land ; quechua tongue; inhabitant of a hot land (various commentators) ; from ‘ Quecchua’, temperate land (Fray Juan Martinez); from ‘Qquechhua’, ‘temperate land or of hot temperament’ (Padre Gonzalez Holguin) ; and, (b) that, according to medieval custom, in the old Spanish way of writing, as in all languages, the sign or tilde placed over a vowel or over the letter ‘n’, had the value or conveyed the sound of an absent ‘n’ or ‘m’, similarly, the Spanish ‘n’ would be equivalent to a double ‘n’ (nn), phonetically in modern Castilian ‘ Quennua’ should be written ‘ Quinnua ’ and ‘ Quenuaquenua ’, ‘ Quinnuaquinnua’.

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On the one hand, however, the dictionary of Father Gonzalez Holguin has the word ‘Qquinua’, which is probably equivalent to our word ‘ Quenua’, and defines it as a ‘tree of puna good for fire-wood and coal’. Obviously, this cannot refer to the Balsam Tree, for the word ‘puna’, also of Quichua origin, means ‘very cold climate or temperament’, while the Balsam Tree is a tree of ‘temperate land or hot temperament’. 

On the other hand, this ‘Qquinua’ of Father Gonzalez Holguin’s dictionary seems to be identical with the tree, of an entirely different species from the Balsam Tree and the Fever Tree, described by Father Cobo and Don Hipblito Ruiz. 

Father Cobo’s account is as follows : 

The Quinua is a tree of the size of an Olive and from there downwards until it grows no more than the height of a man; it has red branches and trunk, with the bark very thin, that peels easily. . .it is a tree so strong in resisting the rigours of cold and frosts like the Quishuar; and so, only these two species of trees grow in the rigorous paramos [highlands] of Peru, especially in the Provinces of Collao. They make of the Quinua very good coal, which is very necessary where it is so cold.

And Don Hipblito Ruiz writes: 

Passing through various Mineral Works and Lagoons, we descended to the Ravine of the Quinua, (a name acquired) because many trees grow in it called Quinuares or Quinhuares: which serve as a great auxiliary to the Miners of the Cerro de Yauricocha for the buildings and Mine works due to the strength of their trunks, and (for being) the wood of great duration for the fire. From this tree we established the genus Polylepsis, a name derived from the numerous thin layers in the (ma)nner of papers the colour of molasses, in which its bark peels progressively in proportion to the years it has.

Then, to summarize the facts implicated in this hypothesis, if the words Quennua and Quennuaquennua were to be synonymous with ‘Quina’ and ‘Quinaquina’, among the aborigines two separate trees must have borne’ the same name, and ought to have been distinguished by some other specification: one of ‘ cold temperament ’, good for fuel, and another of ‘temperate climate’, used for its medicinal properties. 

(It is a reproduction of a portion from A Critical Review of the Basic Facts in the History of Cinchona by Dr. Jaime Jaramillo-Arango, former Rector of the National Faculty of Medicine of Bogota.)

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Saquib Salim

Saquib Salim is a well known historian under whose supervision various museums (Red Fort, National Library, IFFI, Jallianwala Bagh etc.) were researched. To his credit Mr. Salim has more than 400 published articles on history, politics, culture and literature in English and Hindi. Before pursuing his research and masters in modern Indian History from JNU, he was an electrical engineering student at AMU. Presently, he works as a freelance/ independent history researcher, writer and works at