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George Hugh Neil Towers, PhD, FRSC 1923-2004
George Hugh Neil Towers, PhD, FRSC 1923 2004

The herb and medicinal plant research community lost one of its truly great men with the death of Professor Neil Towers on November 15 at the age of 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 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), cats claw (Uncaria tomentosa and U. guaianensis), and Chinese club moss (Huperzia serrata).

Born in Bombay, India, and educated in Burma, his interest in the natural world began in Asia. He obtained his bachelors and masters degrees from McGill University, and his doctorate in plant physiology 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.

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 by the Phytochemical Society of Europe in 2000, and in 2001 he was recognized as one of UBCs (and the worlds) 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.

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 former 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, an ethnopsychopharmacologist at the University of Minnesota, received his doctorate from Dr. Towers. In an e-mail from the Peruvian Amazon, where he was working on a research project, McKenna wrote: He [Dr. Towers] was and is one of those great men of science, a pioneer in the grand tradition.His life-long passion for, and drive to understand, the chemical language of plants was the force behind an insatiable curiosity and a child-like wonder that kept Neil young and strong even to the very end of his days. But his was no cold scientific rationalism, or some egotistical exercise in producing papers and getting grants (though he did plenty of both). He did what he did because it was fun. He enjoyed his work, and there was nothing else that he would rather spend his time doing than exploring the intricacies of the chemical webs that tie together all of life, plant and animal alike.

Eloy Rodriquez, now a professor at Cornell, one of Towers post-doctorate students, recounted a research trip to West Texas: The one thing I remembered about the expedition was Neil asking a West Texas rancher if he had seen any millipedes in the area and the rancher responded, Nope, but I have seen plenty of stampedes! I, and all of my colleagues and students, will miss such a great mentor and compadre. He was a great wit, musician, lover of all fine things in life and most of all he had a great sense of humor and a love of all varieties that were tropical and spicy.

Another of Towers post docs, Alister Muir, PhD, now a researcher at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Saskatchewan, reminisced, In the 21st century in Canada we sometimes take cultural and ethnic diversity for granted but for me, a young Kiwi PDF [post-doctoral fellow] arriving in Canada from a predominately Caucasian work environment, the ethnic and cultural diversity of the Towers lab was an incredibly exciting and stimulating place to be in and learn from. 

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 lifes exciting journey, said Tom Mabry, PhD, of the University of Texas at Austin, a fellow winner of the Pergamon Prize.

This writer will always remember Neil for his wit and gemutlicheit 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 on November 22 and a memorial service was held on December 16 on the UBC campus. Neil Towers is survived by his wife Elizabeth and his eight children, four 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. Phone 604-822-8920 (Canada).

Mark Blumenthal