For the past 17 months, the United States National Herbarium has been digitizing a significant portion of the collection’s 5 million specimens using conveyor belt technology. Today, the team digitized its one millionth plant specimen.
What specimen was chosen to mark this occasion?
The digitization team is currently processing specimens in the Rubiaceae. To mark this milestone, we selected an economically important member of this cosmopolitan plant family, Cinchona micrantha Ruiz & Pav. The herbarium specimen we chose consists of a portion of a branch with a leaf and an inflorescence (= cluster of flowers) along with a separate infructescence (= cluster of fruits or capsules) and a piece of bark. Relatively few of our herbarium specimens include bark samples but there is an important reason why this one does. An annotation indicates that the bark was sampled for cinchona alkaloids. The specimen label further hints at the importance of this chemical analysis. The plant was collected in Peru in January 1944 by W.H. Hodge whose field work as stated on the label was on behalf of the “U. S. Gov’t. Board of Economic Warfare”.
Why is Cinchona economically important?
Cinchona, a Neotropical genus of 23 species, is the source of quinine, an historically important antimalarial, and the bitter flavoring of tonic water. The medicinal properties of this plant were known to the Quechua who inhabited the Andes of Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. (There is some debate as to whether or not malaria was indigenous to the New World). In early colonial times Jesuit missionaries observed the efficacy of “fever tree” bark in curing malaria and they introduced it to Europe in the early 1600s. Several Andean countries hoping to maintain a monopoly on this important medicinal plant began to impose restrictions on the export of seeds and cuttings. The monopoly was broken in 1860 when the British explorer Clements Markham, working for the India Office, introduced cinchona seed and plants into cultivation in British India and Ceylon. Subsequently large plantations were developed in the Dutch East Indies and by the middle of the 19th century these were the principal global source of quinine and the basis of a new monopoly.
What was the U.S. Board of Economic Warfare?
World War II disrupted global trade and forced the United States and its allies to seek alternatives for many essential products. Java in the Dutch East Indies, which then had extensive cinchona plantations and the world’s largest quinine factory, fell to the Japanese in 1942. This was an enormous disaster for the United States because it had failed to stockpile sufficient quantities of quinine before the war and as fighting in the Pacific Theater became more intense, malaria threatened the well-being and battle-readiness of American and Allied soldiers. A synthetic substitute for quinine existed but its side effects prevented it from being widely adopted. New sources of quinine were needed and by 1942 the Board of Economic Warfare became responsible for finding them. The Board, with the cooperation of the U.S.D.A. and the U.S. National Arboretum, established the Cinchona Mission. Missions were established in Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador and at peak activity thirty American botanists were engaged in the search for quinine-rich populations of Cinchona. By the end of the war a useful synthetic quinine had been developed but from 1942 until 1944 the American botanists taking part in the Cinchona Missions had found and shipped over 10 million pounds of quinine bark back to the United States.
Who was Walter Hodge?
Walter H. Hodge (1912-2013) was a native of Massachusetts. He completed his Ph.D. at Harvard University and worked on the flora of the Caribbean Island of Dominica before World War II. During the war, from 1943 to 1945, he was employed by the U.S. Board of Economic Warfare to take part in the Cinchona Missions in South America that were searching for new sources of quinine. After the war he held several academic positions, first at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia (1945–1946) and then Harvard University (1950). Later he was employed by the U.S.D.A. (1950–1955) and the N.S.F. (1961–1973). The Smithsonian has the botanical field notes he made in Peru during the war. His specimens and those of other Cinchona Mission participants were transferred to the U.S. National Herbarium in 1952.
Why is digitizing this Cinchona specimen important?
Herbarium specimens are important to the documentation of the Cinchona Missions. The botanical specimen images show not only the collection labels, reporting the collection date and locality, but additional annotation labels detail the analysis of the bark samples for cinchona alkaloid levels. The digitization of this Cinchona specimen and many others of the same expedition give researchers open access to a botanical voucher of historical importance. The U.S. National Herbarium specimen online-catalog can be found at <http://collections.nmnh.si.edu/search/botany/>.
What is the Rubiaceae and why else is it important economically?
The Rubiaceae is a cosmopolitan plant family of more than 600 genera and 13,000 species. Most of our local mid-Atlantic representatives of this family are herbs such as bedstraw (Galium), partridge berry (Mitchella), and bluets (Houstonia). Probably the best known and most-frequently consumed member of the family is coffee (Coffea arabica L.), native to Yemen and Ethiopia but now cultivated throughout the tropics and served in restaurants and cafés throughout the world. The family also has a number of ornamental species, the most familiar probably being species of the strongly-scented Gardenia.
Many plants supply us with medicines and stimulants. The Rubiaceae is notable because of the antimalarial quinine, derived from Cinchona, and the stimulant caffeine, derived from Coffea.
Hodge, W.H. 1948. Wartime Cinchona procurement in Latin America. Economic Botany 2(3): 229-257.
Smocovitis, V.B. 2003. Desperately seeking quinine: The malaria threat drove the Allies' WWII “Cinchona Mission”. Modern Drug Discovery 6(5): 57-58.
Photographs of Hodge and his Peru expedition can be seen at <http://www.huntbotanical.org/botanists-art/detail.php?4>.