In today’s edition of NtHWS Extras, we’re taking a look at a nearly forgotten medical tale from World War II: The widespread use of Atabrine to combat malaria, with varying results.
This story starts all the way back in the 19th century, with a bunch of Dutch smugglers who brought Cinchona seeds from South America to Indonesia (then the Dutch East Indies). Cinchona is the source of quinine, the most effective anti-malarial agent then known. It had long been manufactured in Peru, but the Indonesian plantations quickly cornered the market; they could produce the drug for about half as much as the Peruvians. So by the dawn of World War II, Indonesia was the world’s sole supplier of quinine, and thus a highly strategic asset.
The Japanese were totally hip to this fact, and thus made the invasion of Java of a top priority. After the Japanese conquest of the Dutch East Indies, the Allies suddenly found themselves deprived of a vital pharmaceutical resource—they key to fighting in jungles the world over. Our soldiers were thus forced to resort to Atabrine, a synthetic antimalarial synthesized from coal tars.
Atabrine was mildly effective, but there were some serious side effects. The mildest of these was a deep yellowing of the skin; soldiers on daily Atabrine regimens appeared as if they’d come down with jaundice. More disturbingly, the drug was also known to cause cases of violent psychosis.
In the jungles of northwest Burma, where much of Now the Hell Will Start takes place, Americans were ordered to swallow five grains of Atabrine per day; sergeants sometimes manually forced the pills down privates’ throats. But despite the strict drug regimens, malarial was endemic along the Ledo Road; for every 1,000 men in the field, the Army recorded 955 cases of malaria.
Moral of the story? Diversify your pharmaceutical supply lines!