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Luis Diego Gómez Pignataro

Luis Diego Gómez Pignataro 1944–2009  Photo ©2010 Guillermo Duran

Luis Diego Gómez, PhD, referred to by many as the father of modern botany in Costa Rica, passed away from complications related to leukemia on November 13, 2009.1 He was 65.

Dr. Gómez was the driving force behind science in Costa Rica, as well as a world-renowned fern taxonomy expert. He is also well-known for his knowledge of Costa Rican ethnobotany and tropical ecology.

“Luis Diego Gómez was very important in many arenas: the fern arena, the medicinal arena, and many other scientific and artistic arenas,” said noted ethnobotanist and author James A. Duke, PhD (e-mail, November 16, 2009).

Luis Diego Gómez was born on July 18, 1944, in San José, Costa Rica. He grew up in the slopes of a volcano in Turrialba, Costa Rica and had an interest in tropical nature and diversity at a young age. He attended the National Conservatory of Music from 1957–1960, then obtained his masters degree and doctorate from Loyola University in Spain in 1963 and 1966, respectively. He attended the University of Costa Rica from 1966– 1970 and received a license in biology, botany, and zoology. Dr. Gómez directed the National Museum in Costa Rica (1970–1985) and co-founded the Costa Rican Academy of Sciences and the National Institute for Biodiversity.2 He also directed the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) stations at Las Cruces (1986–2005) and La Selva (2003–2005) and founded the scientific journal Brenesia.

Dr. Gómez published over 100 scientific papers and several books.3 One was a book of poetry, according to Mahmood Sasa Marin, PhD, friend and associate professor at the University of Costa Rica in San José (e-mail, December 5, 20-009). “Despite being a hardcore scientist, he was an extremely sensitive person,” said Dr. Marin.

Dr. Gómez loved books and had an extensive and bizarre collection, said Larry Wilson, PhD, a professor of forestry, wildlife, and fisheries at the University of Tennessee and previous roommate of Dr. Gómez (oral communication, November 18, 2009). Dr. Wilson added that this proved his passion for books, since libraries are difficult to keep in the moist climate of Costa Rica. Dr. Gómez had many scientific passions besides academic botany, such as collecting edible mushrooms, discovering medicinal plant uses, and a passing interest in herpetology, said Dr. Wilson. “He was a Renaissance man in that he dabbled in everything.”

Although Dr. Gómez excelled in many areas of science, he wasn’t a master in every field. Sometimes his natural curiosity and charisma would cause him to very enthusiastically mail what he thought was a rare specimen to one of his expert friends, hoping to be congratulated on his find: “He had a superb eye and could identify most anything, but snakes were his Waterloo,” said William Lamar, an adjunct biology professor at the University of Texas at Tyler and friend of Dr. Gómez for about 20 years (e-mail, November 19, 2009). “Once he proudly announced that at last they had turned up a black-headed bushmaster (Lachesis melanocephala), a large venomous species, and he was sending it right up to San José. Upon arrival, it proved to be yet another Terciopelo (Bothrops asper), perhaps the best known dangerous snake in Costa Rica. This had by then happened with such regularity that Luis said he was simply going to identify all snakes as Terciopelos in the future so as to be accurate.”

Dr. Wilson had a similar anecdote about Dr. Gómez’s attempt to identify a caecilian, a hard-to-find species of amphibian that lives underground and resembles worms. “He was seldom wrong, but one time he was convinced he had indentified and found a caecilian. It turned out to be an earthworm,” said Dr. Wilson. “Bill Lamar and I never let him hear the end of that.”

Dr. Gómez was also passionate about non-scientific things such as dancing, cooking, flamenco, guitar, the tango, and music in general, said Bryan Hanson, PhD, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at DePauw University, Greencastle, Indiana (e-mail, November 27, 2009). Since he was a trained classical concert pianist, it was not unusual for the sounds of piano to drift from his office or to hear flamenco music wafting from his Las Cruces home, said Dr. Hanson.

Dr. Gómez often combined many of his interests into one course so that others could likewise enjoy his wide array of passions. In fact, Dr. Hanson met Dr. Gómez after he invited him to guest lecture on the chemistry of medicinal herbs in a 2002 ethnobiology course. “The ethnobiology course was one of those crazy, beautiful things: a combination of botany, zoology, ethnology, chemistry, conservation, linguistics, sociology of rural development, Spanish by immersion, plus it came with Latin dance lessons every evening,” said Dr. Hanson. Mark Plotkin, PhD, president of the Amazon Conservation Team, described his experience of co-teaching a medicinal plant course with Dr. Gómez and Dr. Duke as the “botanical equivalent to being invited to dinner with the deities on Mount Olympus....” (e-mail to M. Blumenthal, November 16, 2009).

Dr. Gómez also adored women: “He loved women and liked to charm them,” said Dr. Wilson. “He was also a very social person. I’m trying to think of anyone who disliked him, and I can’t.”

In fact, many of his colleagues and friends mentioned his dry wit, engaging personality, and his ability to make friends with ease, aside from his extensive knowledge of Costa Rican botany. “Luis was a fun, interesting and charismatic guy,” said Michael Gilmore, PhD, assistant professor of integrative studies at George Mason University (Fairfax, Virginia) and a friend who met Dr. Gomez when they co-coordinated an ethnobiology course together in 2006 (oral communication, December 1, 2009). “No matter where we traveled in Costa Rica, everyone seemed to know Luis— from the most important scientist in Costa Rica to the indigenous people of a small village.”

Dr. Gómez was also an advocate for the indigenous people of Costa Rica. According to Dr. Gilmore, he worked to get the word out about their communities, struggles, and accomplishments; in fact, in the 1980s he was instrumental in helping block a planned hydroelectric dam in the Coto Brus area of southern Costa Rica, which would have flooded much of the Guaymí peoples’ land and numerous botanical and archeological sites.

“Luis Diego Gómez: botanist, ethnobotanist, teacher, writer, humanist, bon vivant, and—most important of all—super cool and fabulous human being, has passed away,” said Dr. Plotkin. “And the world is a poorer and less interesting place without him.”

Dr. Gómez is survived by his son Diego, his wife Rebeca Brenes Roldán, and 2 grandchildren.4

—Kelly E. Lindner
  1. Jimenez J. Luis Diego Gómez Pignataro 1944–2009. Organization of Tropical Studies website. Available at: iew&id=530&Itemid=381. Accessed November 18, 2009.

  2. Babbar L. Luis Diego Gómez Pignataro 1944–2009. Organization of Tropical Studies website. Available at: ew&id=530&Itemid=381. Accessed November 18, 2009.

  3. Luis Diego Gómez: National Biologist. November 25, 2009. Available at: Accessed December 3, 2009.

  4. In celebration of the life of Luis Diego Gómez Pignataro [paid announcement]. La Naciōn. November 17, 2009:40.