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ACEER Foundation Honors Botanist Jim Duke with Legacy Award: Amazon Nonprofit Group Establishes Duke Ethnobotanical Scholarship

The nonprofit Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research (ACEER) recently awarded its ACEER Legacy Award to one of the herb world’s most respected and beloved ethnobotanists, James A. Duke, PhD.

On September 29, 2013, members of Dr. Duke’s family, friends, fellow musicians, longtime colleagues, ACEER board members, and volunteers in his extensive six-acre farm and herb gardens — The Green Farmacy Garden — gathered at the farm in rural Maryland where he and his wife Peggy reside to attend the awards ceremony and participate in honoring the unique, highly prolific author, botanist, and herbal songwriter.

Dr. Duke, trained in systematic botany, was a leading economic botanist at the Agriculture Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). One of his duties while working as a consultant to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) was to travel to foreign countries to collect thousands of samples of medicinal plants with reputed folkloric uses for treating internal or external cancers. NCI wanted small samples of such plants to make extracts for screening to see if they could identify compounds with anti-cancer activity, with the prospect that one or more such compounds could become a new anti-cancer drug.

In addition to his USDA research for 30 years, Dr. Duke has published more than 30 books, countless articles and reviews, and he remains active in medicinal plant affairs at age 84 — writing, teaching, and still singing.

The ACEER event included mariachis performing songs in Spanish, and Dr. Duke and his son John singing some of Duke’s own songs about herbs, accompanied by musician colleagues with whom Dr. Duke has played for years.

Roger Mustalish, PhD, professor emeritus of West Chester University and president of the ACEER Foundation, said, “The ACEER Legacy Award is given in recognition of lifetime achievements in Amazon rainforest conservation. No one is more deserving than Dr. Jim Duke. His passion and dedication for the Amazon resulted in a brilliant life and career. His work, his energy, and his spirit have touched the lives of innumerable individuals within Amazonia and around the world. We are honored to recognize Jim with this award.”

Dr. Duke was one of the early board members of ACEER in the early 1990s.

The ACEER Legacy Award was presented to Dr. Duke by renowned actress-singer-philanthropist Olivia Newton-John and her husband “Amazon John” Easterling (founder of Amazon Herb Company), both of whom received the ACEER Legacy Award in 2012.

Said Easterling, “Dr. Jim Duke epitomizes what ACEER is all about; a researcher, educator, an ambassador for sustainability, respectful for indigenous cultures. The data he has gathered on Amazonian plants is a huge contribution to the appreciation of the healing potential and ultimate value of our living rainforests. Listening to his personal rainforest stories spun with the grace and wit of a true southern gentleman [has] inspired me and thousands of others who share his passion for our Amazon treasure house. It’s a privilege to honor him with the ACEER Legacy Award 2013.”

Ms. Newton-John said, “I was honored to be a part of the ACEER Legacy tribute to Jim Duke, a man my husband and I respect so highly. I remember the first time I stood in his healing garden, and I was humbled by his understanding and knowledge of the plant kingdom. Dr. Duke represents everything ACEER stands for with his books, lectures and songs — rainforest education and protection.”

The master of ceremonies (or “roastmaster” as Dr. Duke called him) was Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council (ABC). Blumenthal is a longtime colleague and friend of Dr. Duke’s and also a member of the ACEER Board of Trustees.

Blumenthal relished his role as toaster and roaster of his friend and mentor. He told the assembled group — whom he collectively and affectionately called “Dukies” — “I was deeply grateful that Roger asked me to honor and ‘roast’ Jim. Over the past 30-plus years I’ve traveled with Jim to Korea for an international ginseng conference, bunked with him in the Peruvian Amazon at least a dozen times, and ‘slept’ with him in the Peruvian Andes, Belize, Costa Rica, Kenya, and South Africa — all on the ABC Pharmacy from the Rainforest Ecotours starting in 1994. If it weren’t for Jim and his incredible knowledge of medicinal and edible plants from all over the world, these rainforest ecotours would never have gotten off the ground. Hundreds of pharmacists and physicians attended these tours, and many had life- and career-changing experiences.”

Botanist, author, and noted photographer Steven Foster, who has just completed revising the forthcoming third edition of Peterson’s A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs: Of Eastern and Central North America with Dr. Duke, provided the following note to the group, read by Blumenthal, about his collection of Dr. Duke’s books:

At a seemingly ageless 84 years young, Jim Duke is still in the prime of his output. My library is arranged by subject; except for two authors — Cincinnati pharmacist John Uri Lloyd and Dr. James A. Duke — both prolific enough to warrant their own shelves. My shelf of John Uri Lloyd books is three feet wide. My shelf of Jim Duke books is a mere two feet wide. I expect Jim will make up the difference, and I hope one of those titles will be a Jim Duke memoir.

At the event, Dr. Mustalish and Blumenthal also introduced ACEER’s new Dr. James A. Duke Endowed Scholarship in Ethnobotany, which will help to continue Dr. Duke’s legacy of medicinal plant and ecological education in the South American Rainforests.

As Dr. Mustalish noted:

To continue Jim’s legacy and lifelong passion for the Amazon basin and its treasure trove of medicinal plants, the ACEER Foundation announces the creation of the Dr. James A. Duke Endowed Scholarship in Ethnobotany. The purpose is to support the education and research efforts of a new generation of ethnobotanists. Each year at least two awards will be made: One, in recognition of Jim’s global impact in ethnobotany, will be awarded to an international student or researcher in support of his or her work in the Amazon. But Jim has also always believed in empowering students and researchers from within Amazonia. Therefore, a second award will be given to Latin American students and researchers engaged in studying Amazonian medicinal plants. The ACEER Foundation thanks Jim himself for a major gift that funds this Scholarship, in addition to gifts from Chris and Sharon Davidson, and John [Easterling] and Olivia [Newton-John].

Said Dr. Duke, “I am deeply grateful to ACEER for its tireless efforts to keep the spirit of ethnobotany alive and well in the Peruvian Amazon Rainforest, where I have spent many memorable trips — over 50 — with researchers, health professionals, and students. I am sure that the fund that ACEER has created in my name will help train and empower a new generation of ethnobotanists and stewards of the rainforest.”

The actual ACEER Legacy Award, a handcrafted glass bowl, was donated by Michael and Susan Ellison, owners and founders of TriVita Inc., a marketer of dietary supplements and other natural products in Scottsdale, AZ. TriVita acquired Easterling’s Amazon Herb Company in September 2012.

—ABC Staff

About the ACEER Foundation

The ACEER Foundation was founded in 1991 as a nonprofit organization designed to help increase awareness of the need to conserve rainforest ecology and the communities and cultures in the Amazon basin, particularly the Peruvian Amazon. One of the ACEER’s first projects in the 1990s was a pioneering and extensive rainforest canopy walkway located near the confluence of the Napo River and the Amazon in Northern Peru. ACEER operates a wide variety of educational and conservation programs, formerly in northern Peru near Iquitos, but now has moved most of its activities in the areas near Puerto Maldonado in Southern Peru. More information can be found at

About James A. Duke, PhD

Dr. James A. Duke has had a distinguished career in economic botany, receiving the Distinguished Economic Botanist Award in 2000 from the Society for Economic Botany. He received bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in botany from the University of North Carolina in 1952, 1955, and 1961, respectively. Postdoctoral work at Washington University and Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, MO, inspired him to begin his work in neotropical ethnobotany, which he often refers to as his “overriding interest.”

In 1963, Dr. Duke accepted a position with the USDA. He soon joined Battelle Columbus Laboratories in 1965 and spent the next seven years in Panama living closely with the natives and studying their relationship to the rainforest. During this time he wrote Isthmian Ethnobotanical Dictionary (published by the author in 1972; 3rd edition, Scientific Publishers, 1986), which catalogs hundreds of medicinal plants of the Central American isthmus and their uses.

In 1971, Dr. Duke returned to USDA and, in 1977, served as chief of USDA’s Medicinal Plant Laboratory. Next, he served as chief of USDA’s Economic Botany Laboratory, and then chief of its Germplasm Resources Laboratory. Over the years he also coordinated with the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to search for anti-cancer and anti-AIDS drugs. He supervised the collection of botanical materials that were investigated by NCI for possible use in cancer chemotherapy. During this collaborative period, Dr. Duke started a phytochemical database. Today this database encompasses several phytochemical, ethnobotanical, and medical botany databases, all available free online at

Dr. Duke also has been a prolific author. Besides the CRC Handbook of Medicinal Herbs, which has been a standard reference for over 20 years, other notable publications include the Handbook of Legumes of World Economic Importance (Plenum Press, 1981), Ginseng: A Concise Handbook (Reference Publications, Inc., 1989), CRC Handbook of Alternative Cash Crops (CRC Press, 1993), Amazonian Ethnobotanical Dictionary (CRC Press, 1994), his best-seller, The Green Pharmacy (Rodale Press, 1997; now translated into several languages), the Handbook of Medicinal Plants of Latin America (CRC Press, 2008), and Duke’s Handbook of Medicinal Plants of the Bible (CRC Press, 2008).