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William J. Keller: 1942 – 2020

It is with profound sadness that I report that William “Bill” J. Keller, PhD, died at age 77 on October 29, 2020. Among his many contributions to the field of pharmacognosy, Keller was the long-term secretary of the American Society of Pharmacognosy (ASP) for about 30 years and an honorary member of ASP. He died due to complications from a serious fall in late 2019.

Keller began his duties as ASP secretary in 1985 and conducted these with great efficiency and reliability. In addition to being a bastion of ASP for so long, and someone who was approachable to young and older colleagues alike, he was also an excellent natural products scientist, who had a highly successful career in both academia and the dietary supplements industry.

Keller was born in Ware, Massachusetts, on November 13, 1942. He received his BS in pharmacy (1966) and MS in pharmacognosy (1969) from Idaho State University. He then earned his PhD in pharmacognosy from the University of Washington in 1972. Keller was appointed shortly thereafter to the faculty of the School of Pharmacy at Northeast Louisiana University (NLU; now the University of Louisiana at Monroe) in Monroe, Louisiana, where he was employed for more than 20 years. He became head of the Division of Pharmaceutics and Medicinal Chemistry in 1978 and was named Clarke Williams Distinguished Professor at NLU in 1989. In 1995, Keller moved to the McWhorter School of Pharmacy at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, as professor and chair of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences.

In April 2001, Keller transitioned from academia to working at a major botanicals company when he became vice president of health sciences and educational services and chief scientific resource officer at Nature’s Sunshine Products, Inc. (NSP) based in Spanish Fork, Utah. During the industrial part of his career, he worked initially for several years with Jerry McLaughlin, PhD, former ASP president and former professor of pharmacognosy at Purdue University. At the University of Washington, McLaughlin previously had been Keller’s doctoral dissertation advisor on the investigation of cactus alkaloids. Keller was highly regarded by the senior management of his company and was appointed to the NSP Medical and Scientific Advisory Board in 2014. Though he formally retired in 2015, Keller remained on this advisory board for some time thereafter.

In addition to being secretary of ASP, Keller was a member of the Board of Trustees of the American Herbal Products Association and was on the Dean’s Advisory Board of the colleges of pharmacy at Idaho State University and Texas A&M University. While in academia, Keller served on several National Institutes of Health grant review panels and was a frequent journal manuscript reviewer. He published about 100 journal articles and made approximately 200 scientific addresses both in the United States and internationally. In the 1990s, Keller spent a sabbatical period as a guest professor in the Department of Pharmacy at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH-Zurich) in Zurich, Switzerland, where he worked with ASP Honorary Member Professor Otto Sticher, PhD. Keller became an honorary member of ASP in 2010.

In 2002, Keller approached me about performing some phytochemical and biological testing laboratory support work on selected botanical dietary ingredients. We started off by looking at noni (Morinda citrifolia, Rubiaceae), and, over the years, my group went on to also investigate açaí (Euterpe oleracea, Arecaceae), black chokeberry (Aronia spp., Rosaceae), goji berry (Lycium chinense and L. barbarum, Solanaceae), mangosteen (Garcinia mangostana, Clusiaceae), licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra, Fabaceae), and maqui berry (Aristotelia chilensis, Elaeocarpaceae). This collaborative work between Keller and my group at Ohio State University (OSU) eventually led to 11 journal articles and 18 meeting presentations on these topics. This gave an opportunity for several of my former graduate students at OSU to perform in-depth research on botanical dietary ingredients. Having a research program on botanical dietary supplements gave me useful insight for teaching professional pharmacy students. Thus, my past collaboration with Keller was extremely helpful from the standpoint of both research and teaching.

Mark Blumenthal, American Botanical Council founder and executive director, said: “I knew Bill from our membership in ASP and, later, we increased our communication and friendship when he was working on research and education at Nature’s Sunshine Products, a long-established major herb business. Like many of his friends and colleagues, I consider Bill a deeply humble, decent, kind, and generous person, and I will always appreciate his strong support for the educational mission of ABC.”

Ill health caused Keller to resign in 2015 from both his herb industry job and his position as the longest-serving secretary of ASP. Bill Keller is survived by his second wife, Tram Nguyen; two sons, Jeffrey and Scott; two grandsons; and numerous friends and professional colleagues.

A. Douglas Kinghorn, PhD, DSc, is the Jack L. Beal Chair and Distinguished Scholar Awardee in the College of Pharmacy at the Ohio State University. He served as ASP president from 1990 to 1991, is an honorary member of ASP, and the emeritus editor of the Journal of Natural Products.

This memorial was edited and shortened from a longer tribute by Kinghorn that was published in the Winter 2020 edition of the ASP newsletter (Volume 56, Issue 4).