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Book Review


Fundamentals of Pharmacognosy and Phytotherapy, 3rd edition, by Michael Heinrich, Joanne Barnes, José M. Prieto Garcia, Simon Gibbons, and Elizabeth M. Williamson. New York, NY: Elsevier; 2018. Softcover, 360 pages. ISBN: 9780702070082. $59.99.

Fundamentals of Pharmacognosy and Phytotherapy has been revised, updated, and improved with this third edition, which includes online resources and is available as an e-book. Having researched natural products chemistry for more than 25 years and spent the last decade training students, particularly graduate students, in this field, I consider this treatise to be an essential addition to the library of anyone who strives to explore, understand, or use the chemistry of natural products.

Much of the text of Fundamentals resonates with me, based both on my own training in the 1990s and on what I expect of students in 2018. Being a graduate of Purdue University, my education was heavily influenced by the writings of the late Varro (“Tip”) Tyler, PhD, and his co-authors, particularly James Robbers, PhD, and Lynn Brady, PhD. As graduate students, we were expected to know essentially everything that was in their classic book Pharmacognosy (Lee & Febiger), the ninth edition of which was last published in 1988. Akin to their book, but with a 21st-century treatment, Part A of Fundamentals does a nice job of outlining the history of pharmacognosy (including pre-recorded history of native peoples around the globe); describing key discoveries, particularly those that led to mainstream Western pharmaceuticals; and explaining some of the tools and techniques of the trade, including biosynthesis, structure elucidation, and isolation/purification of small molecules. While those topics represent a great deal of content, the information is presented at an introductory level so that students can get a taste for the breadth of subject matter that can fall under the heading of “pharmacognosy.”

Interestingly, Part B of the book has more of a biomedical tone, outlining “phytomedicines” based on how they may be used, such as in the cardiovascular or respiratory systems, to treat infectious diseases, or to aid in weight loss. In this manner, I was reminded again of Tyler’s writings, particularly what evolved into Tyler’s Herbs of Choice (CRC Press, 1999). While Part A might be pitched for laboratory researchers, Part B seems more geared toward health care professionals, such as pharmacists, physicians, nurses, or anyone who may be asked questions about the use of herbal remedies. A strength of this book, particularly for students who may be considering a career that involves natural products, is that it gives nearly equal billing to the historical, laboratory, and practitioner sides of pharmacognosy, allowing one to explore them all with enough depth to whet the appetite for further training.

There were many portions of this book that I found myself drawn to with respect to the training of students. In Chapter 7, there were several diagrams and figures of fundamental experiments, such as those that outline the use of a Soxhlet for extractions, how an acid/base alkaloid partition works, and the various components of gas chromatograph and high-performance liquid chromatography systems. In our current “omics” revolution, some may consider such topics a bit pedantic, but I find that many of these techniques and tools are, shockingly, foreign to the generation of students that grew up with computers. At a bare minimum, knowledge of these techniques helps one understand the literature, and in practice, some of those tools can be used as a straightforward way to circumvent a research problem, especially when performing field work in developing countries or working with students that hail from and may one day return to those countries.

Other examples abound, including sections on structure elucidation using mass spectrometry and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, polyketide biosynthesis, and even some of the basics of plant taxonomy. For every section of this book, one could easily find texts that go into those topics in much greater detail (such as Crews et al.1 for NMR or Dewick2 for biosynthesis). However, the authors of Fundamentals do exactly what the title implies and outline the key concepts, tools, and knowledge base that one needs to begin to study pharmacognosy. I have heard more than one person state that a pharmacognosist is sort of like the proverbial “Jack of all trades,” having to know a little bit about a great number of topics. The authors of Fundamentals do a great job of providing the foundation one would need to start a journey into the many rich areas of pharmacognosy. If you are a student of pharmacognosy, I suggest learning everything contained within its pages.

—Nicholas H. Oberlies, PhD
Patricia A. Sullivan Distinguished Professor of Chemistry
University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Greensboro, North Carolina


  1. Crews P, Rodriguez J, Jaspars M. Organic Structure Analysis. 2nd ed. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press; 2009.
  2. Dewick PM. Medicinal Natural Products: A Biosynthetic Approach. 3rd ed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.; 2009.