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Eshbaugh Receives 2007 Distinguished Economic Botanist Award

During the annual meeting of the Society for Economic Botany (SEB) on June 7, 2007, in Chicago, Illinois, W. Hardy Eshbaugh, PhD, was awarded the society’s—and the field of economic botany’s—highest honor for professionals, the Distinguished Economic Botanist Award.1 Annually awarded to those with outstanding educational and research accomplishments, nominees are not required to be members of the society but recipients receive a life membership.2 Among his many accomplishments and honors, Dr. Eshbaugh is also a member of the American Botanical Council’s Advisory Board.

Previous winners include Walter Lewis, PhD, and Memory Elvin-Lewis, PhD, (2006), the late ABC Board of Trustees member Varro E. Tyler, PhD, (1995), and founding members of the ABC Board of Trustees James A. Duke, PhD, (2000) and Norman R. Farnsworth, PhD (1983). In the wake of these former recipients, Dr. Eshbaugh, former SEB president (1983-1984), did not expect to win this prestigious award.

“I was stunned,” Dr. Eshbaugh said (oral communication, August 30, 2007). “When I was president [of SEB] I thought we had a rule that we wouldn’t give the award to past presidents so I was literally stunned. They must’ve changed that rule somewhere down the line.”

Dr. Eshbaugh is most famous for his work with the origin and evolution of the chili pepper, the fruit of the genus Capsicum (Solanaceae), but he is also recognized as a spokesperson in the fields of economic botany and ethnobotany.

“Hardy has distinguished himself as a tireless advocate for biodiversity conservation,” said SEB Council member Mary Eubanks in a recent press release.1

Dr. Eshbaugh attended graduate school at Indiana University. It was there that he discovered his destiny was ironically linked to the pepper, a food he didn’t even like: “Of course, I seldom admit that I don’t like hot food,” Dr. Eshbaugh said in a recent interview.3

It was his professor Charlie Heiser, PhD, who nudged Eshbaugh toward the biosystematic examination of the pepper. During his focus on C. baccatum var. pendulum, chili became a “culinary rage” and Dr. Eshbaugh soon found himself lecturing throughout the world.3

Outside of his work with the chili pepper, Dr. Eshbaugh has worked hard to help fund research in the areas of economic and ethnobotany, but notes that it is not an ideal world for those interested in those fields, though there are notable undergraduate interdisciplinary programs at the University of Hawaii and Frostburg State University in Maryland.

“One has to recognize that there are very few jobs in the field,” Dr. Eshbaugh said. “I tell my students they have to be a good pharmacist, ecologist, etc., and be an economic or ethnobotanist on the side.”

During his time as a program officer for the National Science Foundation (NSF), it was a constant struggle to get funding for research in the those fields, though he was successful in 1982 in funding the proposal on University of Illinois at Chicago’s Prof. Norman R. Farnsworth’s NAPRALERT database, which is widely used today and contains extensive scientific and clinical literature about herbal medicine.4

“I had to convince a panel that databases were fundamental for basic research before people even knew how important they were,” said Dr. Eshbaugh (oral communication, August 30, 2007). “I would say that was my best legacy at NSF and the discipline of economic botany.”

Ethics are also a concern in these fields. During his acceptance speech of the award Dr. Eshbaugh spoke about the future for ethnobotanical and economic botany research in the twenty-first century: “In many cases the research that is undertaken will lead the investigator through a minefield of ethical consideration.…The fact that there is a minefield waiting for us out there highlights the need to properly prepare oneself to make the proper decisions. That should not stop the research or the researcher, but it will bring a heightened level of awareness of ethics, as it must! Unfortunately, ethics is not as big a part of many ethno-economic botanical courses or programs as it should be and this is both unfortunate and inexcusable. Clearly the challenge is for students, professors, and programs to make ethics a larger part of their curriculum to reflect its true importance. We owe that to the people whom we study and with whom we collaborate.”5

However, Dr. Eshbaugh noted that his favorite overarching accomplishment is being an effective mentor to generations of undergraduate and graduate students. Currently with an emeritus professorship in the Department of Botany at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, Eshbaugh said that many of his students have gone on to be influential in the fields of economic and ethnobotany and most have become lifelong friends.

“Students are the real legacy you leave behind,” said Dr. Eshbaugh. “All the research you do will eventually be superseded by someone else, but your students can continue your legacy.”

—Kelly E. Saxton
  1. Society for economic botany names Hardy Esbaugh as distinguished economic botanist [press release]. Honolulu, Hawaii: Society for Economic Botany; February 5, 2007.

  2. Society for Economic Botany Web Site. Available at Accessed August 14, 2007.

  3. Whitacre J. Interview with the 2007 distinguished economic botanist (past president 1983). Society for Economic Botany’s Newsletter: Plants and People. 2007; 21: 4-6.

  4. The American Botanical Council. NAPRALERT Herbal Database Available on Internet. HerbalGram. 2006;71:16.

  5. Eshbaugh H. A dilemma: economic/ethnobotanical research in the twenty-first century. Speech given at the meeting of the Society for Economic Botany; June 7, 2007; Chicago, Illinois.