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Nina Etkin 1948-2009

Nina Etkin, PhD, a leader in ethnobotany and ethnopharmacology, and the co-recipient of the 2009 Distinguished Economic Botanist Award, died of complications related to cancer on January 26, 2009.1

The Distinguished Economic Botanist Award is given annually by the Society of Economic Botany (SEB) for outstanding accomplishments in research. Dr. Etkin had written many scholarly articles for a wide array of publications, including the Journal of Ethnopharmacology and Economic Botany, and she was so routinely prolific that at the time of her death she had 8 articles in press. In her publications and books, she explored human interactions with foods, medicines, and chemical ecology. Often referred to as a “medical anthropologist,” her book Edible Medicines: An Ethnopharmacology of Food (University of Arizona Press, 2006) studies the physiological effects of food across different cultures, including the past and current state of medicine, food, nutrition, and human evolution.2

“Nina Etkin was an excellent scientist, critical thinker, and effective leader in our field,” said Michael Balick, PhD, director of the New York Botanical Garden’s Institute of Economic Botany (e-mail, February 4, 2009). “Her books are major contributions to ethnobiology, and her research has helped us achieve a much greater understanding of the relationship between plants and people at so many levels.”

Dr. Etkin was born in New York City in 1948. In 1975 she received her PhD in anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.1 She taught at the University of Minnesota for 11 years, beginning in 1979, before joining the University of Hawaii at Mānoa in 1990. She taught at that university for 19 years, serving as a professor and the graduate chair for the Department of Anthropology, as well as a professor of Ecology in the Health Group of the UH School of Medicine.2 For Dr. Etkin, teaching was as valuable as conducting research and attracting grants.

“Nina’s greatest accomplishment, in my opinion, is the legacy of her wonderful students,” said William McClatchey, PhD, ethnobotanist and professor at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa (e-mail, January 29, 2009). “She genuinely loved her students, and when they worked hard, she would defend them and their work like a mama bear.”

And her generosity wasn’t just limited to students. According to Paul Cox, PhD, ethnobotanist and executive director for the Institute of Ethnomedicine, Dr. Etkin would often enclose a few bougainvillaea (Bougainvillea spectabilis, Nyctaginaceae) blossoms in letters to friends and colleagues to help share the spirit of Hawaii (e-mail, January 29, 2009). She even took the time to mentor colleagues in other disciplines: “In my case a wayward botanist who attempted to say something now and then about anthropology,” added Dr. McClatchey.

“Nina is the class act in ethnobotany,” said Daniel Moerman, PhD, past editor-in-chief of Economic Botany, the journal of SEB, according to an article in the Ka Leo O Hawaii.1 “No one has been more generous in those behind-the-scenes collegial activities of reading early drafts of manuscripts, encouraging, supporting, and molding.”

Dr. Etkin was a Linnean Society Fellow and a recipient of the Hawaii Regents’ Medal for Excellence in Research.1 She also participated in the International Congress of Ethnopharmacology, where she served as a board member and then president. “She told me that she wanted to see more of the ethno in ethnopharmacology, and with these positions she brought a strong anthropological basis to the field,” said Dr. Cox. “She really helped bring ethnopharmacology into the mainstream of anthropology.”

Dr. Etkin is survived by Paul J. Ross, her husband of 35 years. Names of other family members were not disclosed. In lieu of flowers, the family would like donations sent to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

“We will miss her presence in our midst very much,” said Dr. Balick. “But her work will live on through her writing, her students, and the many others she so positively influenced throughout her life.”

—Kelly Saxton Lindner

  1. K DeRego. Gone too soon: Late professor receives national honor. Ka Leo O Hawaii. January 29, 2009. Available at: media/storage/paper872/news/2009/01/29/News/Gone-Too.Soon-3603085.shtml. Accessed January 29, 2009.

  2. Namkoong. Food, it’s good medicine. Star Bulletin. January 13, 2007:12(13):1–3.