Phil Keil

Rather than another article about how COVID-19 is affecting the engineering world, allow me to take you back to 1630s Peru for a quick history lesson. The Spanish beauty Lady Ana de Osorio, Countess of Chinchon, wife to the Viceroy of Peru lay in a sweat-soaked bed stricken with malaria. As her fever worsened, hope seemed to be lost until a note was received from the Governor of Loxa, a town in the Andes to the north. There had long been legends surrounding a treatment that would cure her using the bitter powder from the bark of Cinchona (quina-quina) trees. Amazingly, it worked! It was so effective, that Lady Ana began dispensing large quantities of the bark to the people of Lima and took it with her when she returned to Spain, where malaria was abundant. This is considered the most serendipitous medical discovery of the 17th century. It was often referred to as “Jesuits’ bark,” “cardinal’s bark,” or “sacred bark” after Jesuit missionaries in South America, however, the Countess of Spain is the one that allowed the acceptance of the discovery and treatment in Europe. As a side note, before this discovery as a treatment for malaria, European remedies included throwing the patient head-first into a bush in the hope they would get out quickly enough to leave the fever behind. Today, we know this medication as quinine.

Let’s fast forward about 100 years and move a bit further East to India. The army of the British East India Company had a persistent problem with Malaria, just as it had in other tropical regions. In the 1700s Scottish doctor George Cleghorn was studying how quinine could be used to prevent the disease. The army began distributing quinine in tonic water; however, the bitter taste was extremely unpleasant. Just as rates of malaria among troops began to come down, word spread from soldier to soldier that you would “never get the taste out of your mouth” leading to troops unwillingness to drink it and raising malaria rates once again. It was back to the drawing board. British officers began adding a mixture of water, sugar, lime, and yes, gin to the quinine tonic to make it more palatable! Thus, the gin and tonic was born. Soldiers in India were already given a gin ration and therefore, this cocktail is what made the most sense. In fact, the great Winston Churchill once declared, “The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.”

So why the little history lesson? Well, it connects with quite a controversial topic that you’ve likely recently been hearing about, hydroxychloroquine. Hydroxychloroquine is simply the synthetic derivative of that same quinine we’ve been talking about in the gin and tonics. There it is! That is how we tie this article into the current coronavirus pandemic. You knew we had to sneak that in there. Jest aside, this is the incredible story behind one of the most famous cocktails in history. Now, my wife is a doctor currently fighting this thing and I’m sure I’d get an earful if I didn’t take a moment to provide the obligatory warning that a gin and tonic is not and shouldn’t be taken as a treatment for COVID-19, but it couldn’t hurt, right? Take this as an opportunity to make the gin and tonic the theme of your next virtual happy hour. Stay safe out there.


Phil Keil is director of Strategy Consulting, Zweig Group. Contact him at pkeil@zweiggroup.com.

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