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Professor Neil Towers Dies at 81


Internationally Acclaimed Botanist and Phytochemist Was Revered by Students and Peers



(November 25, 2004) The herb and medicinal plant research community lost one of its truly great men with the death of Professor Neil Towers, PhD, FRSC on November 15 at age 81. Dr. Towers was known internationally as a prolific scientist, an accomplished botanist and phytochemist, and a renaissance man of charming and highly engaging wit and intellect. He held a post as Emeritus Professor of Botany at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver and had been on the faculty of UBC for 30 years.

One of Towers’ primary areas of interest was in photobiology, e.g., psoralens, light-activated plant chemicals with biological activity. Other research areas included medicinal phytochemistry; ethnopharmacology of medicinal plants of British Columbia, Kenya, Nepal and Peru; chemical ecology relating to plants; fungi and insects; and biotechnology of cell and tissue cultures of medicinal plants of significance, e.g., Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa and U. guaianensis), and Chinese club moss (Huperzia serrata).

Dr. Towers was born in Bombay, India and was educated in Burma, where his interest in the natural world began. He obtained his bachelors and masters degrees from McGill University, and his Ph.D. in 1954 from Cornell University. After academic appointments at McGill and the National Research Council in Halifax, Nova Scotia he was recruited to UBC, where he served as Head of the Department of Botany from 1964-71, a period of great expansion of the Department. After 1971, he devoted his full energies to his successful career in research and teaching, which he continued as an emeritus faculty member from 1989 until his death.

Dr. Towers received numerous awards and prizes during his career in recognition of his scholarship. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, which granted him the Flavelle Medal in 1986. Most recently, he was awarded the Pergamon Phytochemistry Prize in 2000, and in 2001 was recognized by ISI as one of UBC’s (and the world’s) most highly cited scientists. He published more than 425 papers and book chapters, starting with a 1953 paper in Nature. He devoted his extraordinary life to science and traveled extensively to collect plants worldwide.  Dr. Towers had a lifelong passion for tennis, music, travel, botanical and phytochemical diversity, and had many stimulating discussions with colleagues and students, all of which he actively pursued until shortly before his death.

Neil Towers developed strong bonds with his many students and post-doctoral fellows, and like many brilliant professors, kept ongoing personal and professional relationships with many of them. Two of his doctoral students, Dennis McKenna, PhD of the University of Minnesota, and Eloy Rodriguez, PhD of Cornell University, are members of the ABC Advisory Board, as was Dr. Towers.

Dennis McKenna, PhD., an ethnopsychopharmacologist and Senior Lecturer, The Center for Spirituality and Healing, Academic Health Center at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, received his doctorate from Dr. Towers. In an email to ABC from the Peruvian Amazon, where Dr. McKenna is currently working on a research project, he wrote: “Neil Towers was an inspiration to me, as he was to so many of his students, colleagues, and friends. He was and is one of those great men of science, a pioneer in the grand tradition, whose love of science, insatiable curiosity, and passion to understand the complexities of nature kept him alive and intellectually active far beyond the time that most lesser souls are content to devote their time to gardening or golf. As a graduate student in Neil’s lab in the early 80s, it was through his encouragement and support that I was led to change the focus of my studies from molecular biology to ethnopharmacology; it was Neil who urged me to come to Peru for the first time to carry out field work on South American hallucinogens and other medicinal plants of the Amazon. Though I might have had a much more lucrative professional career had I stuck with plan A, I have never regretted the change.  Life has been an adventure ever since, and Neil has always been there, very much a presence in my life as a mentor, and friend. There will never be another like him. All of us, who knew and loved him, who “closed down” not a few bars in our day over beers and stimulating discussions, will never forget him. Neil, we love you; and wherever you are now, we feel like you are right there with us still, participating in the adventures, enjoying the challenges. The twinkle in your eye and the bemused smile on your face will never fade. You live on in our hearts.”

“I will miss Neil; he inspired me in many ways, both scientifically and socially, especially with his dogma that every day should be lived to the fullest with no regrets as a part of life’s exciting journey,” said Tom Mabry, PhD, of the University of Texas at Austin, also a winner of the Pergamon Prize.

This writer will always remember Neil for his wit and gemutlichkeit and the twinkle in his eye. Neil embodied the idea that people of high intellectual activity and brilliance need not be stodgy old professor types; to the contrary, they can exude a joie de vivre that infects everyone around them. A prolific story-teller, Neil was a great guy to close a bar with!

Funeral services were held Monday 22nd and a memorial service will be held in December on the UBC campus. Neil Towers is survived by his wife Elizabeth and his eight children, three sisters, a sister-in-law, as well as numerous nephews and nieces. Donations may be made to The George Hugh Neil Towers Memorial Fund, Awards Services, UBC Development Office, 6253 NW Marine Drive, Vancouver V6T 1Z1, B.C., Canada. Phone 604-822-8920.

-Mark Blumenthal

[An expanded version of this memorial tribute will be published in HerbalGram #65, due in late January 2005.]