“[This expedition] is a day to day affair of slugging it out with the rain and mud and cold …with people who don’t want to work and mules that won’t go,” quipped the Cinchona Missions Assistant Director, William C. Steere. Despite his light-hearted tone, Steere understood the importance of this expedition. In 1942, Japan captured Java, and along with it, America’s Cinchona plantations. Cinchona bark produces the alkaloid quinine—the primary treatment for malaria. Because of the rampant spread of this disease among soldiers, quinine was essential to the U.S. during World War II. Without it, the army would not survive the war.
Realizing the severity of the situation, a coalition of botanists “suggested sending ‘nine young people’ under direction of Professor William C. Steere to seek out wild sources of quinine-yielding bark” in the Andes. In October 1942, Botanists Steere and F.R. Fosberg left for Colombia with the first exploring party. They began their search in Western Colombia, where the high altitudes and rainforests of Cordillera Oriental and Rio Magdalena created a prime habitat for Cinchona.
Steere and Fosberg identified Cinchona trees by their small size, red leaves, and bright pink flowers. Cinchona are a member of the Rubiaceae plant family—a large family that also contains the coffee plant. Along with Cinchona, Steere and Fosberg searched for Remijia pendunculata—another member of the Rubiaceae family that produces quinine.
Steere and Fosberg peeled bark from the trees and tested them for quinine using the Grahe Test. The botanists placed small fragments of bark in a test tube and heated it. Pink smoke signified that the plant was positive for quinine. The tests revealed the two species—Cinchona offinalis and Remijia pendunculata—consisted of sufficient amounts of quinine to be used to treat malaria. C. offinalis was the most common, but R. pendunculata was plentiful in Bucaramongo and in the Carare drainage.
Cinchona pubescens was found in the Andes Mountains and was useless for the treatment of malaria because its bark chipped rather than peeled. Yet the plant, with its thick twigs and potent pink and red flowers, was important enough for them to mention because, while most Cinchona needs shade to survive, this plant has a “peculiarity of being able to thrive in the sun.”
In 1943, the American Quinine Company assembled the Cinchona Mission of Ecuador to search for additional sources of quinine. Steere left Colombia and joined the mission, which was led by anthropologist Froehlich Rainey. Steere collected Cinchona offinalis and C. pubescens, and was the first to find C. pitayensis growing in Ecuador. After some investigation on the Pacific Coast, he found C. barbacoensis – a rare species with sharp pointed leaves, small flowers, and long fruit. While an interesting find, it tested negative for quinine. He then discovered a new species Remijia sp. which was a cross between R. pendunculata and R. purdieana. This species has smooth leaves, yellow bark and was found growing among R. pendunculata.
After being named assistant director in March, Steere left Ecuador in September of 1944. He fondly remembered the expedition, not just because of its mission, but also because it allowed him to expand his personal collection. The expedition itself was a complete success. While in Colombia and Ecuador, the expedition members were able to produce enough quinine to treat the military for two more years. After the accomplishments of the Cinchona Missions, it is hard to believe Steere was working with men “who don’t want to work and mules that won’t go.”
Crum, Howard. “William Campbell Steere: An Account of His Life and Work” The Bryologist. 80 (Winter, 1977): pp. 662-694.
Fosberg, Francis Raymond. Columbian Cinchona Manual. Foreign Economic Adminstration, 1944.
Lambert, Aylmer Bourke and Alexander von Humboldt. An Illustration of the Genus Cinchona. London, 1821.