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Egil Ramstad 1911-2007

Egil Ramstad, PhD, past president of the American Society of Pharmacognosy (ASP) (19661976) and writer of the revolutionary textbook Modern Pharmacognosy, died March 8, 2007.1 A gentleman, scholar, and World War II concentration camp survivor, Dr. Ramstad was a highly visible figure in the field of pharmacognosy.

“He had a different way of thinking and could see things from a different angle,” said his wife Beverley Wilson (e-mail, September 13, 2007). “As a result, Modern Pharmacognosy led the way to a new approach to textbooks in the field.”

“He was a genius and I had the greatest respect for him. He was the kind of person who never forgot anything,” said Professor Norman R. Farnsworth, PhD, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, a colleague of Prof. Ramstad’s (oral communication to M. Blumenthal, October 11, 2007). “His textbook on pharmacognosy was ahead of its time, because it was organized on a biosynthetic model, while other texts used chemistry, taxonomy, or pharmacological activity as the basis for their chapters’ organization.”

Dr. Ramstad was born in 1911 on an island off the coast of Norway near Namsos. He obtained a degree in pharmacy from the University of Oslo in Norway in 1935 and received his doctorate in pharmacognosy in 1939 from Liege University in Belgium. He soon joined the staff of Oslo as a professor, but in 1949 he accepted a professorship in pharmacognosy at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

During his 22 years at Purdue, he wrote the famous Modern Pharmacognosy (McGraw-Hill, first edition, 1957). Where other authors took a botanical approach to the subject (classifying medicinal plants by their botanical categories), he set a new precedent by classifying the medicinal properties of plants by their chemical structures. He also pioneered the use of radioactive isotopes in the study of plants of medicinal importance, which began modern-day chemotaxonomy (B. Wilson, e-mail, September 13, 2007).

“As the seventh president of the ASP, Dr. Ramstad played an important role in the evolution of the Society in its early years,” said ASP President Roy Okuda, PhD, in a recent article in the ASP Newletter.1 “He also contributed significantly to the modern development of pharmacognosy as an academician at Purdue University, and in establishing pharmacy programs at two universities in Nigeria and at Rhodes University, South Africa.”

Always fascinated by plants, Dr. Ramstad also had a strange habit. He liked to taste the leaves of plants he didn’t recognize: “He would break off a leaf, a berry, or a piece of bark and taste it, much to the amazement and alarm of those around him—this apparently dangerous habit seemed to cause little harm as he lived to be 95,” said Wilson. “He considered any plant that was bitter worth studying. If a literature search showed that it hadn’t been investigated, it would become a project for a student.”

Dr. Ramstad is survived by wife Beverley Wilson, two sons Yngve and Tore, one daughter Liv May, and 6 grandchildren.

—Kelly E. Saxton

1. Kanfer I. In Memoriam: Egil Ramstad. ASP Newsletter. 2007;43(2):26–27