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Max Wichtl: 1925–2019
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Preeminent author and pharmacognosist Max Wichtl, PhD, died on July 30, 2019, in Salzburg, Austria, at age 93. His textbook Teedrogen: ein Handbuch für Apotheker und Ärzte (Herbal Drugs: A Handbook for Pharmacists and Physicians; Wissenschaftliche Verlagsgesellschaft; 1984) became the main text for German-speaking pharmacognosists and was known by the nickname “der Wichtl” (“the Wichtl”) among students. “The Wichtl” remains a leading text under its current title, Wichtl — Teedrogen und Phytopharmaka: Ein Handbuch für die Praxis (Wichtl — Herbal Drugs and Phytopharmaceuticals: A Handbook for the Practice). It has been translated into English, French, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish, and Wichtl was listed as co-author on the sixth edition, published in 2016. The book has been an essential resource in the research and quality control libraries of countless herb and phytomedicine companies around the world.

American Botanical Council Chief Science Officer Stefan Gafner, PhD, commented: “In the 1980s and 1990s, ‘the Wichtl’ was an essential book for all pharmacy students in German-speaking countries. At a time when knowledge of macroscopic and organoleptic identification of herbal drugs was still a required class in the curriculum, we [students] would not have passed the exam without having the information contained in ‘the Wichtl’” (email, January 29, 2020).

Medicinal plant expert Josef Brinckmann worked closely with Wichtl in 2001 on the English translation of the fourth edition. “Prof. Wichtl was delightful to correspond with throughout the translation project,” Brinckmann wrote (email, December 7, 2019). “He insisted that the new English edition should not be a ‘literal translation’ and should avoid being ‘Eurocentric.’ Throughout the process, Prof. Wichtl received, reviewed, and commented on [translation partner Michael Lindenmaier and my] work as we completed each monograph. Nothing quite like having Prof. Wichtl check your homework every week for 18 months!”

Wichtl was born in Vienna, Austria, on October 6, 1925. He was educated at the University of Vienna and earned his doctorate in chemistry and botany in 1951 and his habilitation in pharmacognosy in 1965. He initially studied cardiac glycosides, such as those found in purple foxglove (Digitalis purpurea, Plantaginaceae), before expanding his interest to the study of medicinal plants in general. He published his first textbook, Die pharmakognostisch-chemische Analyse: Untersuchung und Wertbestimmung von Drogen und galenischen Präparaten (The Pharmacognostic-Chemical Analysis: Investigation and Quantitative Determination of Herbal Drugs and Galenical Preparations; Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft), in 1971.

Wichtl began his career in education in 1971 as a professor of pharmacognosy at the University of Vienna. In 1973, he became a professor of pharmaceutical biology at Philipps University in Marburg, Germany. Until his retirement in 1990, Wichtl held many positions at Philipps University, including chair of pharmacognosy and director of the Institute of Pharmaceutical Biology, and served twice as dean of the School of Pharmacy. He also mentored graduate students and supervised more than 40 doctoral theses. His research on medicinal plants continued and expanded in scope, and he became a member of the German Commission E, a scientific advisory board for the Bundesinstitut für Arzneimittel und Medizinprodukte (Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices), when the commission was founded in 1978. He also served as a co-editor of commentary for the European Pharmacopoeia from 1981 to 1999.

With Martin Luckner, Wichtl co-authored Digitalis: Geschichte, Biologie, Biochemie, Chemie, Physiologie, Molekularbiologie, Pharmakologie, medizinische Anwendung (Digitalis: History, Biology, Biochemistry, Chemistry, Physiology, Molecular Biology, Pharmacology, Medicinal Uses; Wissenschaftliche Verlagsgesellschaft), which was published in 2000. This comprehensive text represented a lifetime of work on cardiac glycosides present in the genus Digitalis. Wichtl also authored dozens of journal articles during his time at Philipps University.

Later in his career, Wichtl worked closely with the Society for Medicinal Plant and Natural Product Research (GA), first as an organizer of the GA annual meeting in Marburg, Germany, in 1981; as a member of its advisory board from 1984 to 1987; two terms as vice president (1988-1989 and 1994-1997); and as president from 1990 to 1993. The GA awarded him honorary membership in 1995 in recognition of his work, and in 2008, he received the Egon-Stahl-Award in Gold, the organization’s highest honor. Planta Medica, the journal of the GA, published two special issues dedicated to his achievements in 2017, and the Austrian Society of Phytotherapy named him an honorary member in 2012.

Brinckmann recalls that, although Wichtl was dedicated to his work, he also approached it with a sense of humor. “When we began to translate the ‘Pasta Theobromae’ (cacao [Theobroma cacao, Malvaceae] paste) monograph, and quickly realized that it was a spoof, we wrote a diplomatically worded note to the professor asking if we were to seriously translate the chapter or whether we should write a serious cacao monograph,” he wrote. “Prof. Wichtl quickly responded that we were indeed to translate the humorous monograph. He said that scientists can be too serious, so he wanted to surprise them with something funny and unexpected midway through the book.”

Wichtl also had a deep love and appreciation for the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. After the English-language reissue of Mozart: A Life by music producer Maynard Elliott Solomon (HarperCollins Publishers, 1995) in 2005, Brinckmann also helped Wichtl translate the text to German. Wichtl’s translation Mozart: Ein Leben (Bärenreiter Metzler) was published in 2006. Wichtl also directed many Mozart operas at the Marionettentheater Schartenhof, a puppet theater, in Biedenkopf-Eckelshausen, Germany.

Wichtl is survived by his wife, Waltraud.