The name of the genus is due to Carolus "Carl" Linnaeus, who named the tree in 1742 after a Countess of Chinchon, the wife of a viceroy of Peru, who, in 1638, was introduced by natives to the medicinal properties of the bark. Stories of the medicinal properties of this bark, however, are perhaps noted in journals as far back as the 1560s-1570s (see the Ortiz link below).
Cinchona species are used as food plants by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species including The Engrailed, The Commander, and members of the genus Endoclita including E. damor, E. purpurescens and E. sericeus.
The Italian botanist Pietro Castelli wrote a pamphlet noteworthy as being the first Italian publication that mentions the cinchona. By the 1630s (or 1640s, depending on the reference), the bark was being exported to Europe. In the late 1640s, the method of use of the bark was noted in the Schedula Romana, and in 1677 the use of the bark was noted in the London Pharmacopoeia.
According to legend, the first European ever to be cured from malaria fever was the wife of the Spanish Viceroy, the countess of Chinchon. The court physician was summoned and urged to save the countess from the waves of fever and chill that were threatening her life, but every effort failed to relieve her. At last the physician administered some medicine which he had obtained from the local Indians, who had been using it for similar syndromes. The countess survived the malarial attack and reportedly brought the cinchona bark back with her when she returned to Europe in the 1640s.
In 1753 Carolus Linnaeus named the bark Cinchona after the countess of Chinchon. The story of the cure of the countess, however, is doubtful.
Charles II called upon Mr Robert Talbor, who had become famous for his miraculous malaria cure. Because at that time the bark was in religious controversy, Talbor gave the king the bitter bark decoction in great secrecy. The treatment gave the king complete relief from the malaria fever. In return, he was offered membership of the prestigious Royal College of Physicians.
In 1679 Talbor was called by the King of France, Louis XIV, whose son was suffering from malaria fever. After a successful treatment, Talbor was rewarded by the king with 3,000 gold crowns. At the same time he was given a lifetime pension for this prescription. Talbor, however, was asked to keep the entire episode secret.
After the death of Talbor, the French king found this formula: six drams of rose leaves, two ounces of lemon juice and a strong decoction of the chinchona bark served with wine. Wine was used because some alkaloids of the cinchona bark are not soluble in water, but are soluble in wine.
The birth of homeopathy was based on quinine testing. The founder of homeopathy, Dr. Samuel Hahnemann, when translating the Cullen's Materia medica, noticed that Dr. Cullen wrote that quinine cures malaria and can also produce malaria. Dr. Hahnemann took daily a large non-homeopathic dose of quinine bark. After two weeks, he said he felt malaria-like symptoms. This idea of "like cures like" was the starting point of his writings on "Homeopathy".
In 1738, Sur l'arbre du quinquina, a paper written by Charles Marie de La Condamine, a member of the expedition that was sent to Peru to determine the length of a degree of the meridian in the neighbourhood of the equator, was published by the French Academy of Sciences. In it he identified three separate species.
In 1742, on the basis of a specimen received from La Condamine, Linnaeus named the tree Quinquina condaminiae and established a new genus, which he termed Cinchona quinquina condaminiae. In 1753 he described Cinchona officinalis as a separate species.
The bark was very valuable to Europeans in expanding their access to and exploitation of resources in far off colonies, and at home. Bark gathering was often environmentally destructive, destroying huge expanses of trees for their bark, with difficult conditions for low wages that did not allow the indigenous bark gatherers to settle debts even upon death.
In 1860, a British expedition to South America led by Clements Markham brought back Cinchona seeds and plants, which were planted in the Hakgala Botanical Garden in Sri Lanka in January 1861. James Taylor, the pioneer of tea planting in Sri Lanka, was one of the pioneers of Cinchona cultivation. By 1883 about were in cultivation in Sri Lanka, with exports reaching a peak of 15 million pounds in 1886.
The main reason for its use is to treat malaria, but it is rarely used today as many people think it is dangerous, as it can kill if taken in large amounts.