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Raymond Cooper: 1949–2022

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article was published in the American Society of Pharmacognosy Newsletter (volume 58, issue 3).

Ray Cooper, PhD, a distinguished natural products scientist and pharmacognosist, died at his home in Defiance, Missouri, on May 28, 2022, at age 73, after a five-year battle with colon cancer. He died in bed next to a window that looked out into the forest that gave him much peace. In accordance with his wishes, he was buried in Israel in a Jewish funeral ceremony.

Cooper was born in Wolverhampton, England, on March 26, 1949. He earned his doctorate in organic chemistry from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. After completing a postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia University in New York, he researched drug discovery from plant and microbial natural products in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. He then moved to the nutraceutical and dietary supplement industry to develop botanical products from traditional sources. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry in the United Kingdom, an honorary visiting professor in the School of Pharmacy at the University of London, and a visiting professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. He was a longtime member of the American Botanical Council’s Advisory Board.

Cooper was an active member of the American Society of Pharmacognosy (ASP) and served as program chair and conference chair for three ASP annual meetings. In 2014, in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the discovery and development of bioactive natural products with an emphasis on botanicals, ASP awarded Cooper the Varro E. Tyler Prize, which was named in honor of ASP’s first president, Professor Varro E. Tyler, PhD (1926–2001).

Cooper was a dedicated writer who authored several books and more than 90 scientific papers. He co-authored books including Natural Products Chemistry: Sources, Separations, and Structures (CRC Press, 2014), Botanical Miracles: Chemistry of Plants That Changed the World (CRC Press, 2016), and Chinese and Botanical Medicines: Traditional Uses and Modern Scientific Approaches (CRC Press, 2018). He also served as associate editor of The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, now known as Journal of Integrative and Complementary Medicine.

He was also an accomplished executive with a long track record of major accomplishments, including the discovery of new antibiotics related to the monobactams while he was a research investigator at the Squibb Institute for Medical Research (1980–1983), and the development of a drug discovery and natural products screening program while principal scientist at the Schering-Plough Corporation (1983–1989). Cooper also was the assistant research director, and later associate research director and site manager, at Sterling Winthrop Pharmaceuticals’ Research Division (1989–1994). He discovered 10 novel antidiabetic compounds while director at Shaman Pharmaceuticals (1994–1996), brought several proprietary traditional Chinese medicines and more than 30 botanicals to the market while executive director for research and scientific affairs at Pharmanex LLC (1996–2002), and introduced five new products to the consumer market in the areas of cardiovascular health, weight loss, stress, glucose regulation, and pain management while vice president of research and health sciences at Shaklee Corporation (2002–2003).

In addition, Cooper was responsible for all scientific claims relating to the safety and efficacy of products worldwide and managing clinical trials and safety testing as vice president of scientific affairs at Herbalife International (2004–2006), and he founded PhytoScience Inc., where he served as a consultant for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, Harvard Medical School, and the dietary supplement industry (2006–2008). Cooper led the research and development and regulatory affairs activities of a new division of human nutrition formed by Novus International, Inc., a global leader in animal health and nutrition solutions, and directed the company’s biological sciences and discovery sciences group leading to the launch of eight new products (2008–2011).

Ray has left lasting memories for many of his close friends. Gordon M. Cragg, PhD, special volunteer at the National Institutes of Health and former chief of the Natural Products Branch of the Developmental Therapeutics Program of the National Cancer Institute, said: “To me, Ray exemplified a great ‘all-around’ natural products scientist. While serving in prominent positions in academia and the pharmaceutical and nutraceutical industries, he devoted his career of some 40 years to the discovery and development of conventional pharmaceutical drugs, as well as high-quality botanical products for the promotion of better global health, both in the human and veterinary areas.”

  1. Douglas Kinghorn, PhD, professor in the College of Pharmacy at The Ohio State University and emeritus editor of Journal of Natural Products, noted: “Over the years, Raymond Cooper frequently published in Journal of Natural Products and provided both interesting research articles on a wide variety of topics and book reviews…. The natural products community has lost an outstanding colleague who was extremely knowledgeable on medicinal plants.”

Geoffrey Cordell, PhD, of Natural Products Inc. and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, wrote: “It strikes me that from a product perspective, Ray may have been involved in getting more natural products onto market shelves than any other member of the ASP. Ray was highly dedicated to natural products for human health, and especially those from the TCM [traditional Chinese medicine] system. His energy was infectious and persuasive, and his background and vast experience in diverse industrial settings will be sorely missed. A gentle Englishman, affable, funny, very knowledgeable, and passionate for spreading the word about the benefits of natural products.”

Kerry McPhail, PhD, professor at Oregon State University and past president of the ASP, added: “We spoke of writing and teaching and food as medicine. The joy that Ray derived from traveling to and teaching at Hong Kong Polytechnic University was palpable, and his passion for botanicals research was uplifting. His list of book projects was also admirable, and it is inspiring to see so many come to fruition for current and future generations of natural products scientists.”

At the time of his death, Cooper was the chief editor of the “Natural Products Chemistry of Global Plants” book series published by Taylor & Francis/CRC Press. In fall 2020, he had started to work on what was to be the ninth book in the series, Medicinal Plants of Laos, and by May 2022, he had completed editing the first seven chapters of the manuscript and was awaiting the last chapter when he died.

Ray Cooper is survived by his wife Shuly, his son Daniel (Beth), his daughter Orly (Amit) Sharma, and grandchildren Sophia, Miles, Maya, Lila, and Asher.

Djaja Doel Soejarto, PhD,
is professor emeritus of pharmacognosy in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, College of Pharmacy, University of Illinois at Chicago, and an adjunct curator (botany) at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

Chun-Tao Che, PhD,
is the Harry H.S. Fong Professor of Pharmacognosy in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences and the director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Herbal Medicines, College of Pharmacy, University of Illinois at Chicago.