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Norman R. Farnsworth: Renowned Medicinal Plant Researcher Dies at 81
Renowned pharmacognosist and internationally respected medicinal plant research expert, Norman R. Farnsworth, PhD, died on September 10 at a Chicago hospital at the age of 81. He had been in declining health for months, suffering from long-term congestive heart failure and Type 2 diabetes. 

Prof. Farnsworth was born on March 23, 1930 in Lynne, Massachusetts. He was a veteran of the Korean War, drafted into the US Army in 1949 at the age of 18. PFC Farnsworth served in the Third Infantry Division, Seventh Regimental Combat Team. After being seriously wounded in the winter of 1950, he was awarded the Korean Ribbon with Four Battle Stars, the Combat Medical Badge, and Bronze Star with a “V” device.

Prof. Farnsworth received his degree in pharmacy from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy in 1953 and his doctorate in pharmacognosy—the study of drugs from natural origins (including medicinal plants, microbes, marine organisms, and fungi)—from the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) in 1959. At Pitt, he helped institute a pharmacognosy PhD program and served as its first chairman.

In 1970, Prof. Farnsworth left Pitt for a post in the College of Pharmacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), where he served as head of the Department of Pharmacognosy and Pharmacology from 1970-1982. At UIC, he was also Research Professor of Pharmacognosy, Director of the Pharmacognosy Graduate Program, and Director of the World Health Organization (WHO) Program for Collaborative Research in the Pharmaceutical Sciences—a multidisciplinary program that brought together, for the first time, scientists in numerous fields of medicinal plant research to collaborate on drug discovery from medicinal plants. In 1988, he was named Senior University Scholar at UIC. He held the title of Distinguished Professor of Pharmacognosy, which he received for his “scholarship, creativity and leadership,” from 2001 until his death.

As head of the pharmacognosy graduate program at UIC, he mentored more than 100 doctorate and 30 graduate students. Also, he had said he “personally” mentored about 30 PhD and 5 MS students, as well as mentored or co-mentored 30 post-doctoral fellows.

Prof. Farnsworth was an internationally recognized scholar and initiator or co-initiator of many significant projects in the fields of pharmacognosy and medicinal plant research. Among numerous other accomplishments, he was a founding member of both the American Society of Pharmacognosy (ASP) in 1959 and the Society for Economic Botany (SEB) in 1959.

In 1975, Prof. Farnsworth created the NAPRALERT (Natural Products Alert) Database at UIC, the world's first computerized database of ethnobotany, chemistry, pharmacology, toxicology, and clinical trials on medicinal plants.

In 1974,Prof. Farnsworth was one of 12 members of the first delegation of scientists from the United States to travel to the People’s Republic of China to study traditional Chinese herbal medicine. The American Herbal Pharmacology Delegation’s excursion resulted in the publication of Herbal Pharmacology in the People’s Republic of China by the National Academy of Sciences in 1975.

Prof. Farnsworth also was Principal Investigator and Director of the Botanical Dietary Supplements for Women’s Health Center at UIC, which was funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health.

The author and co-author of hundreds of research papers published in peer-reviewed journals, Prof. Farnsworth co-founded the peer-reviewed journal Phytomedicine, the International Journal of Phytotherapy and Phytopharmacology, along with Professor Hildebert Wagner, PhD, at the University of Munich, who remains the journal’s editor-in-chief. This journal is now acknowledged as one of the leading scientific journals in the field.

Among many other organizations and publications with which he was involved, Prof. Farnsworth was also a co-founder of the American Botanical Council (ABC), and the longest-serving member of its Board of Trustees. In 2005, ABC established its Norman R. Farnsworth Excellence in Botanical Research Award, given to medicinal plant researchers who have made significant contributions to the field of medicinal plants and herbal dietary supplements.

Also in 2005, the ASP renamed its annual Research Achievement Award in honor of Prof. Farnsworth, given to outstanding members of the medicinal plant research community. In 2010, UIC established the Norman R. Farnsworth Professor in Pharmacognosy Endowed Professorship, which is currently chaired by Prof. Chuan-Tao Che, PhD, one of Prof. Farnsworth’s former doctoral students.

Prof. Farnsworth was the recipient of numerous awards and honorary degrees from around the world, including the SEB’s Distinguished Economic Botanist Award in 1983. In the 1990s, he was a member of the Commission on Dietary Supplement Labels, established by President Bill Clinton as part of the provisions of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) to develop recommendations for the review of the quality, safety, benefits, and appropriate labeling of dietary supplements.

A larger-than-life figure, Prof. Farnsworth was rarely seen without his trademark Marsh Wheeling cigars in his mouth, even long after he was forced to give up smoking. As public venues allowing smoking diminished over the past 2 decades, Prof. Farnsworth would often be seen in a restaurant or public area with one of his cigars in his mouth, even after being admonished by waiters. He would point out the obvious fact that he was not smoking and that the cigar was not lit, and would continue to keep the cigar in his mouth, seeming to relish the opportunity to keep walking up to the line, but not exceeding it.

He was highly respected and admired in life, and is now remembered fondly by his former students, mentees, and friends. Often seen as brash and outspoken, frequently critical of other scientists and institutions that to him were guilty of producing less-than-acceptable work or policies, Prof. Farnsworth pushed his students and all those around him to strive to the highest degree of academic and professional excellence. And underneath the brash veneer, was a man who was seen by his colleagues and students as extraordinarily generous with his time and personal funds.

His long-time friend and colleague of 56 years, UIC Professor (ret.) Harry H.S. Fong, PhD, once said, “Everyone who has come into contact with Norman Farnsworth has a ‘Farnsworth story’ or 2 to tell.” Dr. Fong recalled that Farnsworth—who continued working up until shortly before his illness—recently noted that Dr. Fong, his former graduate student, had retired, as an example of how long Prof. Farnsworth had hoped to be able to continue his never-ending work in medicinal plant research.

Another phrase used to describe Prof. Farnsworth is the “quintessential renaissance man,” as he was called in an editorial in the ASP’s Journal of Natural Products by his colleagues Dr. Fong, Geoffrey A. Cordell, PhD, and A. Douglas Kinghorn, PhD, the journal’s editor-in-chief: “To fully depict Farnsworth, one needs to write a book,” said Dr. Fong.

In addition to being an ASP founder and its second president (the late Prof. Varro E. Tyler, also an early ABC Trustee, was the first), Prof. Farnsworth relished the role of being the official “roaster” of subsequent ASP presidents. Every year at its annual meeting and scientific conference, one of the true highlights was Farnsworth’s humorous satire, or “roast,” of the ASP’s out-going president—a tradition continued for almost 50 years. In the days and weeks since his passing, numerous colleagues have expressed their laments that Prof. Farnsworth—with his unlit, well-chewed cigar in mouth—would no longer be conducting this light-hearted tradition. It will now be ably carried on by Prof. Farnsworth’s former student graduate Barry O’Keefe, PhD, of the National Cancer Institute.

Dr. Fong shared several anecdotes about Prof. Farnsworth. One story involved his propensity for cigars. “On every lab bench and in every office that Norm has spent any length of time at the University of Pittsburgh and at University of Illinois at Chicago, one will find a littering of chewed remains of Marsh Wheeling cigar butts,” said Dr. Fong. “In fact, such mementos can even be found in Munich, Germany. When he was a visiting professor in Prof. H. Wagner’s lab in 1966, I had the ‘pleasure’ of regularly mailing boxes of Marsh Wheeling cigars labeled as ‘Investigational Material: Of no commercial interest’ to the Institute in Munich.”

However, when it comes to picking out Prof. Farnsworth’s most important accomplishment, Dr. Fong could not choose: “It is not possible to pinpoint any one piece of Norm’s work as being most influential and important,” said Dr. Fong. “Rather, it is his body of work that will constitute his legacy.”

ABC Founder and Executive Director Mark Blumenthal first met Farnsworth in 1977 at the Herb Trade Association’s Herb Symposium in Santa Cruz, California. After a decade of a growing mentorship and friendship with Blumenthal, Prof. Farnsworth—along with economic botanist and ethnobotanist James A. Duke, PhD—were the first to agree to help found ABC and serve on its Board of Trustees.

“Norm was a force of nature—a man with incredible energy and profound and endless commitment to the world of medicinal plant research. There is no one like him in the profession of pharmacognosy and other fields of medicinal plant research,” said Blumenthal.

“He was like a father or uncle figure to many of his 130-plus graduate students and post-docs, creating a ‘family’ of medicinal plant researchers who are now working in many institutions internationally. No matter how busy he was—and he carried an incredible workload not matched by many in any field of medicinal plant science—Norm would always take time to talk to students and fellow colleagues,” Blumenthal noted.

“As he neared the last few years of his life and he began to disengage from many of his former associations and responsibilities, Norm still remained active on the Board of ABC, attending all on-site and teleconference meetings, asking questions about budget issues, organization, administration, policy decisions, etc. All of us on the ABC Board were—and still are—grateful for his continued association with ABC. We were amazed with his interest in and knowledge of details of the organization, and his profound commitment to the success of ABC’s unique nonprofit educational mission to spread the scientific basis supporting the responsible use of herbs, medicinal plants, and phytomedicines,” said Blumenthal.

One of Prof. Farnsworth and Dr. Fong’s former students Daniel Fabricant, PhD, is now director of the Division of Dietary Supplement Programs at the US Food and Drug Administration, and formerly served as Vice President of Science and Regulatory Affairs at the Natural Products Association, an industry trade group. Dr. Fabricant said that he chose UIC because of Dr. Farnsworth and his legacy there. “He’s a straight shooter, he doesn’t put on airs, and he’s very disarming. He’s easy to gravitate to because of these unique qualities,” said Dr. Fabricant. “He’s been my mentor, a hero, and a friend.”

“He has launched a thousand careers, including my own,” said Gail Mahady, PhD, a clinical pharmacognosist who also met Prof. Farnsworth during graduate school, and who headed the project at UIC to produce monographs on herbal medicines for WHO. “For that I will be eternally grateful.”

Prof. Farnsworth is survived by his devoted wife Priscilla Marston Farnsworth, his brother, Bruce, and sister-in-law, Donna, of Massachusetts, a niece and nephew, and hundreds of graduate students, PhDs, post-doctoral fellows, and close colleagues who will always cherish his beloved memory.

A wake and viewing were held in Downers Grove, Illinois, on September 13. A memorial service for Prof. Farnsworth was held September 14 at the North Shore Baptist Church in Chicago with funeral and burial with military honors in Lynn, Massachusetts, on September 16 at Pine Grove Cemetery.


I am heartbroken, and the loss is felt out here in [the South Pacific island of] Pohnpei. He was, and is, a giant among giants, and the last of the close collaborators of Richard Evans Schultes. He was one of those heroes to us graduate students in the ‘70s, a wonderful travel companion and extraordinary mentor.

Michael J. Balick, PhD

Vice President for Botanical Science, Director and Philecology Curator

Institute of Economic Botany

New York Botanical Garden

Norm was a personal friend and mentor to me and many others in the botanical and pharmacognosy communities. He was an exceptional person on many levels. Norm had been ill for quite some time, and so I am relieved that his suffering is over but saddened that we no longer have his unique wisdom, humor, and generosity with us. We must now do our best to carry forward and carry on his tradition and legacy of respect of and interest in medicinal plants and the native populations who have used these plants to our collective benefit.

Loren Israelsen

Executive Director

United Natural Products Alliance

The world is a much quieter and less interesting place now that Norm is gone.

Michael Tempesta, PhD

Managing Partner

Phenolics, LLC

What a wonderful feisty irreplaceable guy! He held a torch for many years and we just would not be where we are without him. Our thoughts are with the many, many people whose lives he touched.

Peggy Brevoort


Brevoort, LLC, Kapa’au, HI

As a former postdoc at UIC (actually working directly with Geoff Cordell at the time), I felt very saddened by this loss. On the one hand, he was one of these characters larger than life; on the other hand, a scientist who had this vision of multidisciplinary research that enabled him to attract an extraordinary bunch of talented scientists.

Matthias Hamburger, PhD

Professor of Pharmaceutical Biology and Head of Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences

University of Basel (Switzerland)

As I think back, I recall the last ride we took together in a cab to the airport. I can almost smell his unlit cigar as it hung from his lips while we talked. When I offered to split the cab fare, he almost chastised me and forced the driver to only take his money—my North Carolina money was not good up there! He truly leaves us a legacy with many, many extensions just like the roots of the medicinal plants he researched so passionately!

Edward Fletcher, PhD

COO, Botanical Division

Strategic Sourcing, Inc.

My fondest memory of Norm was when he went to Ghana with Dan and me in the mid-90s to visit Dr. Oku Ampofo. Norm had an absolutely wonderful time, both visiting with Dr. Ampofo (who was then restricted to bed) and with the Centre for Scientific Research into Plant Medicine. He had everyone laughing all the time, and he gave a major public lecture at the British Consulate. He found that people had been naming children after him and said we, as newlyweds, should name our first child after him. We said that we weren't planning to have any more children, but Dan mentioned that we were going to get a dog, and he said that we should name our dog after him. We got a gorgeous Viszula whom we named Farnsworth, and he kept us laughing almost as much as his namesake had. I know that everyone has a Farnsworth story, and I cherish all of mine from that trip! The world has lost a real treasure.

Diane Winn

Owner, Founder, and Chair

Phytica Inc.

I am indeed saddened by the news of Prof. Norman Farnsworth, a dedicated pharmacognosist and botanist. I have not met the "man,” but his works stimulated me to continue on my passion over 30 years. He will be greatly missed.

Diane Robertson

Kingston, Jamaica

The news of sad demise of Professor Norman R. Farnsworth came as a dampener of the spirits to the members of the Society for New Age Herbals in India. Being personally involved in the efforts of new drug development from plant sources, it was virtually impossible not to come across the contributions of Prof. Norman R. Farnsworth.  The kind of reviews and approaches he has published on the subject are monumental and unparalleled. 

C.P. Khare 

Founder and President