Few, if any, killers in the history of humankind have been as deadly as malaria. Whether it was Alexander the Great, Attila the Hun, or Genghis Kahn, many of history’s most powerful leaders — not to mention large chunks of their empires — fell to the disease. It’s been killing humans since at least 450 AD clear through to 2015, when it struck 214 million and killed 438,000. Some even claim that one out of every two human beings who ever lived died of malaria.
“In its ability to adapt and survive, the malaria parasite is a genius,” said Robert Gwadz, a scientist who has studied malaria at the National Institutes of Health. “It’s smarter than we are.”
Yet by World War II, scientists believed they had found an answer to the great malaria problem: atabrine (the name-brand version of the drug mepacrine).
The military’s best attempt to fend off mankind’s deadliest enemy, this antiprotozoal/antirheumatic first came to prominence in the fight against malaria in the 1930s, but is no longer used today — a relief to many, considering the side effects include yellowed skin, queasiness, hallucination, and loss of appetite. Instead, a cocktail of newer antimalarials is preferred, having as they do a success rate of 90% with uncomplicated forms of the disease.
But during World War II, atabrine couldn’t have come soon enough: in the Pacific theater, casualties from malaria were greater than the number of casualties from combat, and the disease was threatening to turn the tide of the war.
Thus, a soldier remembering to take his dose of Atabrine was of the utmost importance. As the above sign not-so-coyly suggests, atabrine was literally the difference between life and death.