Dennis Awang, PhD, FCIC (fellow of the Chemical Institute of Canada), a prominent natural products chemist, died in Ottawa, Canada, after a long illness on February 13, 2022, just a few hours short of his 85th birthday. A longtime scientist for the Canadian government, his research interests included ethnobotany, pharmacognosy, phytochemistry, and quality control.
The oldest of nine children (five boys and four girls), he was born Dennis Valentine (for his birthday on Valentine’s Day) Cecil (his father’s name) Awang on February 14, 1937, on the island of Trinidad in the Caribbean, just off the coast of Venezuela. According to his sister, Monica, their father called him “the prince” because their mother, Ina, treated him specially. “He was very particular about certain things,” and “he never liked getting his fingers ‘messy’ eating mangoes” (Mangifera indica, Anacardiaceae) from trees that surrounded the family’s home, Monica recalled (email, February 22, 2022).
Lennox Borel, one of Awang’s lifelong, childhood friends, wrote: “I first met Dennis in elementary school in Trinidad and Tobago. As a boy, I spent much time at his home in [San Juan], where his mother treated me as one of her own children.… We both won government scholarships in the same year at Nelson Street Boys’ R.C. School and were able to attend St. Mary’s College, a prestigious [secondary] school in Trinidad and Tobago. Dennis and I sat side by side in the same classes for four years.… As teenage boys we became enamoured of steelpan and played for a steel band…, which included many of our fellow students” (email, February 20, 2022).
In 1957, Awang left Trinidad to attend Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1960 and a PhD in 1967.
Ian Jones, another longtime friend of Awang, met Awang when Jones enrolled in Queen’s University in 1965. “He was well on his way to his doctorate in chemistry, but this did not stand in the way of his Trinidadian love for the steelpan,” Jones wrote (email, February 18, 2022). “Dennis had founded the Queen’s University Steelband in 1964 and was happy to hand the arranging responsibilities to me…. For me, his final act of acknowledgment was his giving me a piece of his stained-glass art a few years ago.”
Awang completed postdoctoral studies in organic chemistry at the University of Michigan and the University of Illinois. For 24 years, before starting his own consulting business, Awang was a research scientist at Health and Welfare Canada (now Health Canada). At the Bureau of Drug Research of the Health Protection Branch, he directed research to support the regulatory bureaus of the Drugs Directorate in the areas of drug stability and methodology development for antibiotics, hormones, and natural products. For many years, he was the Canadian government’s official spokesperson for herbal science.
Awang authored more than 150 scientific publications, including more than 20 articles in HerbalGram. Some of his significant HerbalGram articles include “Comfrey Update” (issue 25 in 1991), about the potential toxicity of comfrey (Symphytum spp., Boraginaceae), and “What in the Name of Panax Are Those Other ‘Ginsengs’?” (issue 57 in 2003), about the nomenclature and taxonomy of ginseng (Panax spp., Araliaceae).
Awang reportedly convinced the Canadian government to ban the importation and sale of comfrey for ingestible consumer products in 1982 because some comfrey species and chemotypes contain liver-toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs). He acknowledged that some comfrey species and chemotypes are probably safe to ingest but believed the ban was justified because quality control methods that were generally available in the Canadian herb industry at the time were not adequate to distinguish safe from toxic comfrey materials.
Awang also was interested in the chemistry and pharmacology of feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium, Asteraceae) for migraines and, with Canadian pharmacognosist Robin Marles, PhD, developed guidelines for feverfew quality control.
“Our task was to develop quality control standards for powdered leaf of feverfew in tablets,” Marles wrote (email, March 13, 2022). “Against these standards, products could be assessed for licensing in Canada as non-prescription drugs for migraine prophylaxis (prevention). We developed a high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) method … to identify the varieties of feverfew that showed anti-migraine activity in clinical trials.
“We also worked on some bioassays and quantitative structure-activity relationship models to try to establish a possible mechanism of action for feverfew’s reduction of the frequency and severity of migraines,” Marles added. “This research helped the Canadian government grant drug marketing authorization for feverfew products a decade before the creation of Canada’s Natural Health Products regulatory framework. As Dennis wrote at the time, in HerbalGram issue 29 in 1993, ‘The approval of traditional medicinal plant preparations for specific therapeutic application, based on modern clinical trials, is an historically significant event in the regulation of herbal products.’”
In the 1990s, Awang was instrumental in the American Botanical Council’s (ABC’s) Ginseng Evaluation Program and worked with his colleague, John Thor Arnason, PhD, an ethnobotanist and phytochemist, to develop a laboratory analytical method at the University of Ottawa and the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) to authenticate American ginseng (P. quinquefolius), Asian ginseng (P. ginseng), and eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus, Araliaceae), which was then commonly called “Siberian ginseng.” This method was used to test the identities of more than 500 commercial “ginseng” products, in one of the largest programs ever created to test a popular herbal ingredient.
“Dennis had an encyclopedic knowledge of natural products, developed some of the earliest regulatory guidance for medicinal plant quality in North America, and contributed broadly to herbal science,” Arnason wrote (email, March 12, 2022). “He also was an accomplished stained-glass artist, self-taught expert on traditional African art, and prepared the best goat curry this side of Trinidad.”
Awang contributed significantly to ABC’s educational mission. He served on ABC’s Advisory Board for more than two decades until his death and peer reviewed many ABC publications, including articles for HerbalGram, HerbClips, chapters in The ABC Clinical Guide to Herbs (ABC, 2003), and more. A piece of his stained-glass artwork, a replica of ABC’s echinacea (Echinacea sp., Asteraceae) logo, hangs in the window of the kitchen of ABC’s historical Case Mill Homestead in Austin, Texas.
ABC Founder and Executive Director Mark Blumenthal remembered Awang once sent some comments about a botanical taxonomy issue by fax, after Awang reviewed a draft of an article that ABC was preparing to publish. Blumenthal called Awang to ask why he felt compelled to write a critique about this issue since his primary expertise was natural products chemistry. “I’ll never forget his response: In his best Queen’s English (Trinidad was a former British colony, so he learned to speak English ‘correctly,’ as he would occasionally point out to me), he said, ‘My dear Mark, everyone knows that it’s a lot easier for a chemist to learn botany than for a botanist to learn chemistry,’” Blumenthal wrote in an ABC Member Advisory released the day after Awang’s death.
After he retired from the Canadian government, Awang started MediPlant, a natural products consulting company in White Rock, British Columbia, and collaborated with his friend and colleague Michael Z.C. Li, MBA, MSc, MD, who wrote (email, March 23, 2022):
I first met Dennis at the International Ginseng Conference in Vancouver in 1994. The first thing I noticed about him was his last name, Awang, which is somewhat a Chinese name. Dennis claimed that he’s half Chinese. It didn’t take long to discover that he has Chinese ancestral roots, as his grandfather, a Chinese Malaysian, immigrated to Trinidad. And it’s because of that connection and our mutual interest in botanical science that we became cherished friends ever since.
Dennis unrelentingly pursued science in herbal medicine. He was an avid advocate for having qualified people, organizations, and government-run certification programs established for confirmatory testing on botanical identity and chemical analysis to ensure safety, efficacy, and quality of medicinal plants/natural products. I remember in one of the early days, when I started working with him on a product testing program and seeking his insights, he said I should always ask the question “Who is qualified to test?” We later often joked together by expanding the question to “Who is qualified to judge?” and “Who is qualified to approve?” on topics not only related to science but also to life and politics.
Dennis was a visionary and an outspoken, determined, meticulous, and caring perfectionist who enjoyed life and all that it offered, in addition to his devotion to science. It was a privilege for me to have him as a mentor, friend, and colleague. Having worked and traveled with him over the years, I learned a lot from him. Dennis will be greatly missed, and he will always stay close to the hearts of those who were lucky enough to have known him.
Paula Brown, PhD, director of applied research at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, remembers Awang as an “amazing mentor” and “dear friend.” She wrote (email, March 21, 2022):
I will never forget my first meeting with Dr. Awang. “Miss Brown, please do tell me why you have confidence in your [ginseng root] analysis, when it is in disagreement with preeminent scientist Dr. John Fitzloff of [UIC] and Canada’s leading phytochemist Dr. Thor Arnason?” I can hear his voice so clearly, like it was yesterday. We soon discovered we had both studied under Dr. Saul Wolf and bonded over organic chemistry. He graciously shared his enthusiasm and love for natural product chemistry with me, for which I will always feel blessed. Dennis will forever hold a place in my heart as a gentleman and a scholar, with a little bit of mischief thrown in!
Awang was on the editorial advisory board of the Journal of Herbs, Spices & Medicinal Plants and the Alternative Therapies in Women’s Health newsletter and on the international editorial board of the journal Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies (FACT). For many years, he regularly contributed to the Canadian Pharmaceutical Journal’s Herbal Medicine series of reviews and was a lecturer and media commentator on medicinal plant and natural products science. He was also a co-editor of the international journal Phytomedicine and a member of the American Chemical Society.
Awang served on the United States Pharmacopeia’s Advisory Panel on Identification and Standardization of Natural Products, on the faculty of Columbia University’s annual herbal medicine course for physicians and surgeons, the Botanical Advisory Committee of Leiner Health Products, and as a director of Chai-Na-Ta Corp., which was then the world’s largest grower of American ginseng.
He served for two years on the Advisory Committee of the UIC/US National Institutes of Health Center for Botanical Dietary Supplements Research and as chair of the advisory board of the Purdue University-University of Alabama at Birmingham Botanicals Center for Dietary Supplements Research. In 1994, the Mexican Academy of Traditional Medicine awarded Awang the Martin de la Cruz medal for his contributions to medicinal plant research. He also authored the third edition of Tyler’s Herbs of Choice (CRC Press, 2009).
“Dennis was really a Renaissance man,” wrote Theresa Gomes, a childhood friend (email, February 18, 2022). “I admired and appreciated his vast knowledge on and interest in a variety of areas, such as music, sports, art, culture, and current affairs. He enjoyed travel and was very sociable, making friends wherever he went. He was an amazing cook, who took the time to prepare delicious, fancy meals…. He was indeed an interesting person, and I will cherish the memories of times I spent with him.”
Dennis Awang is survived by four of his siblings, his children Dennis Jr., David, and Melanie, and three grandchildren.