15 MAY 1941, Page 18

Hostages in Ecuador

MR. GILL cut himself a ranch from the forests east of the Andes, in the Republic of Ecuador. Having established himself in state, as a "minor feudal baron," he was about to go on holiday when his horse reared and threw him. Six months later he was lying in New York, a victim of spastic paralysis. With a calm and humorous wisdom he traces his return to strength and the jungles of Ecuador. He also describes in detail his search for the drug curare. This deadly South American arrow-poison disconnects the muscles from the brain, and might thus give relief to paralytics. It was his task to discover the constituents, so that it could be manufactured accurately.

For cold fortitude his story has rarely been bettered. He was already friendly with the Indians, who had made him a junior witch-doctor. But he had to bluff his way before they would tell him their secrets. Curare is the pivot of their lives, their magic, almost their religion. It was not for sale or barter. He had to persuade these people who were keen, suspicious and intelligent, that he knew the bulk of the formula and only wanted details. He placed his wife, his companions and himself in the dangerous position of hostages 200,000 paralytics in the United States alone made them take the risk with enthusiasm.

The climax is really terrifying in its quiet economy of words. Against his will, the witch-doctor promised to show Mr. Gill the process. He said, however, that his child would fall ill during the final brewing of the poison. The child was healthy and well, and Mr. Gill gave his friend a peppermint as a warder-off of evil. They retired to the forest with their pots and began to make curare.

But the cooking was hardly started before one of his younger brothers came gliding into the little clearing and whispered to him. Then he left as quickly as he had come, and Yasacama looked across the simmering ollas at me.

"My brother tells me," he said slowly, "that my man-child has sickened. It is the magic of the iambi, for he was strong and well before I lit these fires. But I have the taste of your magic still in my mouth, and I shall continue to make the poison for you But it will not be good for you if my man-child dies."

Mr. Gill adds drily :

I gave him another mint and said nothing. But I knew what would happen if the baby died. His words were true when he said that it wouldn't be good.

The expedition was a splendid example of what Mr. Gill calls functional exploring. It achieved its medicinal goal: for curare is now prepared at standard strength in the laboratories. Many sufferers can thank Mr. Gill, whose courage has given them hope. I recommend his book to those who like real adventure without the taint of hysteria. Mr. Gill knows his