Compulsory anti-malaria drugs in WWII

Inquiring minds


Each week the staff at the Roseville Library answers more than 2,500 questions on every subject under the sun. Here is one of the most interesting ones they’ve gotten lately.


Q. An older relative told me that there was one drug that any service person in the Pacific Theater in World War II was ordered to take — no excuses! My relative is gone now, but can you tell me what the drug was?


During World War II in the Pacific, malaria was almost as big a threat to the American forces as the Japanese. During one low point in 1942 at the allied base in Milne Bay, Papua, medical staff were recording an average of four cases of malaria per soldier per year.

Before the war, the standard antimalarial treatment was quinine the “tonic” in the gin and tonics so beloved by generations of British colonials. Manufactured from the bark of the cinchona tree, quinine was effectively a monopoly of the Dutch-controlled island of Java. When the Netherlands fell to the Nazis and Java was occupied by the Japanese, the supply was cut off and the Allies had to look for a synthetic substitute.

They came up with Atabrine, which is probably the drug your relative had in mind. Atabrine was highly effective at preventing malaria, but it did have some unfortunate side effects, including a tendency to turn the soldiers’ skin bright yellow. Troops were understandably reluctant to take it in some cases, and the Army devoted posters and a PR campaign to persuading the soldiers to down their daily doses.  

(From the website of the National Museum of the United States Army.)

Do you have a question for the staff at the Roseville Library? You can call them at 651-724-6001 or ask your question in person at the Information Desk, Roseville Library, 2180 Hamline Ave. Library hours are 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday; and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday.

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