Ahhhh, summer is approaching, and so with it come many bulbous-shaped glasses, filled to the brim with bright and zesty gin and tonic. This popular alcoholic beverage has more of a medicinal history than you might have once thought.
In fact, Winston Churchill once promoted the drink as a life-saver: “Gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire”. And there is some truth in this, as this drink was distributed within the British Army for its anti-malaria properties.
Malaria is a mosquito-borne disease caused by members of the Plasmodium genus that is delivered by Anopheles mosquitoes. It can cause many serious complications and can result in death. In modern times, there are a few medications available and the malaria vaccine is currently being distributed to areas that need it the most.
One notable treatment that is still used today is quinine. This is a short-acting medication that is known as the first anti-malarial drug of modern medicine, and has been used since the early 1600s. It is a compound that comes from the bark of the cinchona tree.
One of the legends around this discovery was that a Native South American, who was once lost in the Andean forest with a fever, apparently came across a pool of stagnant water that had a bitter taste. After drinking the water his fever abated and he later found that the water had been contaminated by a nearby cinchona tree. He then proceeded to tell his villagers and they started to extract the bark to treat fevers.
When Spanish colonists in Peru realized that this bark could treat malarial fevers this promoted a transatlantic trade, and in 1820 chemists were able to extract quinine sulphate from the bark, allowing it to enter clinical practice a year later.
Eventually, in the 19th century, quinine was used to treat the fevers of British soldiers stationed in India. So much so, that by the 1840s 700 tons of the bark were extracted per year. By 1854, it was ordered that every European man take a daily dose of quinine while exploring the Niger river.
Unfortunately, quinine is known to be very bitter and unpleasant. So “tonic water” was invented, where the extract was mixed with sugar and water. In 1870, Schweppes introduced “Indian Quinine Tonic”, which was aimed at the overseas British population. The British Army and British East India Company leaped at this creation and adopted the tonic, with the addition of lime to prevent scurvy.
The British army introduced gin (or, as it used to be known, genever), an alcoholic beverage that was developed at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, to tonic water. Firstly, it was a way to hide the bitter flavor, and secondly alcohol was already being used by soldiers to help soften the blow of traumatic stress from battle. Gin was also used by the Dutch army in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), where the soldiers had a gin ration to drink before going into battle, hence the term "Dutch courage". When the British Army saw this, they decided to take it back to England.
Quinine remained a part of malaria treatment until more effective synthetic antimalarials became available in the early 20th century. Nowadays, it is recommended that you use these antimalarials rather than a gin and tonic, as tonic water contains far less quinine than its original recipes. It is thought you'd need to consume 70 liters of tonic water to get the required quinine needed to be prophylaxis.