Although more than 200 cinchonas reached Southampton alive, in crossing Egypt in October the plants were incinerated in the heat of the Red Sea.
With the Ecuadorian bark forests nearly exhausted as a result of the frantic stripping of trees to satisfy European demand for the drug, the transplantation of cinchona -- to give the tree its correct botanical name -- was no longer viewed simply as a matter of colonial self-interest but a humanitarian imperative.
Spruce was not the first botanist to go in search of cinchona and by no means the only Briton.
It was against this background that the British government decided to organise a series of collecting missions to gather the eight most valuable species of cinchona growing in the Andes.
It was in an effort to understand the challenges facing these cinchona pioneers that last year I found myself standing on the rim of Chimborazo's glacier, looking west towards the Ensillada and the pass of Llullundengo -- a tiny v-shaped cutting that guards the descent to the cinchona forests.