Get Involved
About Us
Our Members

ABC Announces the Passing of Medicinal Plant Scientist Dennis Awang

Dear Valued ABC Member,I am truly sorry to inform you that our longtime good friend Dennis V.C. Awang, PhD, FCIC (Fellow, Canadian Institute of Chemistry), passed away on Sunday, February 13, in Ottawa, Canada, after a long illness. He died just one day short of his 85th birthday, which would have been today. He was born with the name Dennis Valentine (for his birthday on this holiday) Cecil (his father’s name) in Trinidad.Dennis was a highly skilled natural products chemist (he obtained his PhD from Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada); he specialized in the chemistry of herbs and medicinal plants. For many years he was the leading expert on herbs and medicinal plants as head of Natural Products Section at the Bureau of Drug Research, the Health Protection Branch, Health and Welfare Canada (later renamed Health Canada), before the Natural Health Products category for herbal products was created as a subcategory of medicines in the Canadian regulatory framework. During one period in the 1990s he was a key spokesperson for the Canadian government on matters related to the science, safety, and regulation of herbal products in the Canadian market.He was keenly interested in research in ethnobotany, pharmacognosy, phytochemistry, quality control, and other scientific areas of herbs and medicinal plants and was a gifted and punctilious writer, editor, and peer reviewer. He contributed significantly to the science of medicinal plants and the nonprofit research and educational mission of ABC.Dennis served on the ABC Advisory Board for over two decades and was a highly active peer reviewer of numerous ABC publications, including articles in ABC's peer reviewed journal HerbalGram, numerous ABC HerbClips, and chapters in The ABC Clinical Guide to Herbs (ABC, 2003), among others.Dr. Awang wrote over 100 articles and reviews in the scientific literature, including 21 articles and book reviews in HerbalGram. These include seminal articles on comfrey (Symphytum officinale) (“Comfrey Update” in HerbalGram 25) and ginseng (Panax spp.) nomenclature (“What in the Name of Panax Are Those Other ‘Ginsengs’?”, in HerbalGram 57).Besides his strong interest in ginseng, he took a particular interest in the chemistry and clinical pharmacology of feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) for migraine and developed Canadian guidelines for quality control in collaboration with Canadian pharmacognosist Robin Marles, PhD, leading to the marketing authorization by Health and Welfare Canada of a feverfew leaf product as a non-prescription drug for migraine prophylaxis. As Dennis said at the time, “The approval of traditional medicinal plant preparations for specific therapeutic application, based on modern clinical trials, is an historically significant event in the regulation of herbal products.” (HerbalGram 29 (Summer 1993): 34-35)It was he who convinced the Canadian government to ban the importation and sale of comfrey for ingestible consumer products in 1982 due to some of its species and chemotypes’ containing hepatotoxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids. While acknowledging that some comfrey species or chemotypes were probably safe for ingestion, he believed that the ban was justified at that time because appropriate chemical quality control methods in industry QC laboratories was inadequate to distinguish the presumably safe from the known toxic comfrey materials.Dr. Awang was one of the principal architects of ABC’s Ginseng Evaluation Program in the 1990s in which he and his close colleague, ethnobotanist and phytochemist Prof. John Thor Arnason, PhD, collaborated in the development of a laboratory analytical method at the University of Ottawa and University of Illinois-Chicago for the identity of American and Asian ginseng (and the then-named “Siberian ginseng”, Eleutherococcus senticosus), and participated in the employment of that method to test the identity of over 500 commercial ginseng products sold in North America, the largest program to test one popular herb.After retiring from the Canadian government he started a natural products consulting company MediPlant consulting in White Rock, British Columbia, collaborating with his close friend and colleague Michael Z.C. Li, MBA, MSc, MD.I remember one time when he had sent me some comments on the botanical taxonomy of a medicinal herb in a fax (this was prior to the widespread advent of email in the late 1990s) after he had peer-reviewed a draft of a paper that ABC was preparing for publication. I called him on the phone and inquired as to why he felt so compelled to write a critique of a relatively arcane botanical taxonomic issue when his primary academic and scientific area of expertise was natural products chemistry.I’ll never forget his response: In his best Queen’s English (Trinidad was a former British colony, so he learned to speak English ‘correctly’ as he would occasionally point out to me) he said, “My dear Mark, everyone knows that it’s a lot easier for a chemist to learn botany than for a botanist to learn chemistry.”A dapper dresser and a renaissance man with an artistic flair, one of his key artistic expressions was making stained glass windows – one of which – a replica of ABC’s echinacea-based logo, a gift he gave me in the 1990s – is hanging in a window by the kitchen door at ABC’s 160-year-old building at ABC’s historic Case Mill Homestead in East Austin.The world of herbs and medicinal plants has lost another significant contributor and a colorful personality. Dennis Awang is survived by his daughter Melanie Awang and granddaughter Taysia in Ottawa.May his memory be a blessing.I wish you and your loved ones fully robust and vibrant health.Respectfully,

Mark's Signature

Mark BlumenthalFounder & Executive Director, ABCEditor-in-Chief, HerbalGram