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Medicinal Plants and the Legacy of Richard E. Schultes

Medicinal Plants and the Legacy of Richard E. Schultes edited by Bruce E. Ponman and Rainer W. Bussmann. St. Louis, MO: Missouri Botanical Garden; 2012. Softcover, 138 pages. ISBN: 978-0984841523. $24.95.

In the fall of 1977, as a new student at Harvard, I received some disturbing advice from a professor as I was attempting to select my PhD advisor. “Whatever you do, stay away from Richard Evan Schultes. He spent a decade alone in the Amazon, he is a dinosaur, and he is dangerous to otherwise good students.”

Of course, the next morning I found myself in Professor Schultes’ office at the Harvard Botanical Museum on Oxford Street. I found Dr. Schultes to be a highly cultured Boston Brahmin who was more proud of his graduation from Boston Latin School than any of his Harvard accolades. His knowledge of plants and botanical literature was encyclopedic, and he was deeply interested in the success of students. He certainly is one of the most extraordinary people that I have ever met in my entire life, and is universally considered to be the 20th-century pioneer of modern ethnobotany.

Although I cannot strictly claim the distinction of being a “Schultes student,” having taken my PhD in evolutionary biology rather than ethnobotany, Professor Schultes constantly encouraged me to pursue ethnobotanical studies in Polynesia during my other fieldwork there. Fortunately, I was accepted by his real students and regularly attended his seminars at the Botanical Museum. Dr. Schultes’ students were an amazing lot, and nearly all of them went on to extraordinarily distinguished careers. The late Timothy Plowman, PhD, of Chicago’s Field Museum and the late Calvin Sperling, PhD, of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) were, in my opinion, two of the finest field botanists of the century.

Professor Schultes’ surviving students have collaborated to produce a gem of a book, Medicinal Plants and the Legacy of Richard E. Schultes, which includes personal anecdotes, ethnobotanical research, and a great deal of biographical information. Reading this volume takes me back to my student days, when his graduate students — with me as a spare wheel — modestly divided up the entire planet into our own private research realms. On special occasions, Professor Schultes would show his 8 mm home movies of first contact with Amazonian tribes. Other days, we would discuss press reports of a real zombie walking into a hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Sometimes Albert Hofmann, PhD, inventor of LSD-25, would lecture us in organic chemistry. It was a heady experience. (For the record, Professor Schultes had no patience with fellow Harvard professor Timothy Leary, hippies, or recreational exploitation of indigenous psychoactive plants.)

The day that Professor Schultes discussed the molecular biology of the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi, Malpighiaceae) and chacruna (Psychotria viridis, Rubiaceae) in seminar was life-changing for me, and is the reason why I have devoted my career to the ethnobotanical search for new drugs. I realized that if indigenous people had discovered that level of sophisticated neurochemistry, somewhere a traditional healer just might hold the cure for cancer. Professor Schultes’ deep respect for the dignity of indigenous peoples and his awe at their pharmacological achievements was inspiring.

Medicinal Plants and the Legacy of Richard E. Schultes is divided into 11 chapters. Michael Balick, PhD, begins with a deeply personal account of his introduction to Professor Schultes and documents the mentorship of the young Schultes as a student by Harvard Professor Oakes Ames. Rainer Bussmann, PhD — a co-editor of the book — documents the voluminous herbarium collections of Professor Schultes and his publication of 500 papers. My favorite part of his chapter is a photograph of the young Schultes in Oaxaca in 1938. Looking at the photographs, one can see how the dashing, brilliant, and compassionate young Schultes became a model for Hollywood characters ranging from Sean Connery’s Medicine Man to Harrison Ford’s portrayal of Indiana Jones.

An extremely tight chapter on Chácabo ethnobotany in Bolivia follows, written by Dr. Bussmann and Narel Zambrana. Distinguished ethnobotanist Robert Bye, PhD, ensues with an excellent analysis of Dr. Schultes’ contributions to ethnotaxonomy, including an examination of his undergraduate work on the sacred plants of Mexico. Rodrigo Cámara-Leret, Zambrana, and Manuel Macía, PhD, continue with an excellent chapter on ethnobotanical techniques for the study of palms. Prospective students of ethnobotany would be well-advised to read this chapter carefully, including the appendices, as they prepare for their own field studies. Andrés Gerique contributed a chapter on the ethnobotany of the Ecuadorian Andes with fascinating analyses of plant use by the indigenous Shuar, the Saraguros, and the Mestizos, which reveals significant insights into land use and land tenure by different cultures.

Steven King, PhD, part of a company that recently scaled the Mount Everest of ethnobotany — successfully navigating a new botanical drug through the USDA (i.e., the antidiarrheal drug crofelemer derived from the latex of the South American sangre de drago tree [Croton lechleri, Euphorbiaceae]) — devotes his chapter to how Professor Schultes inspired the creation of a major conservation effort, The Healing Forest Conservancy, and pioneered the concepts of benefits-sharing with indigenous people, long before the Convention on Biodiversity had been conceived.

Neil Schultes, PhD, Professor Schultes’ son, shares some personal experiences about what it was like to grow up in the shadow of his famous father and to pursue a distinguished career in plant biology himself. He now perpetuates the pioneering Schultes spirit in his careful analysis of photosynthesis at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.

Distinguished plant explorer and expert in Asian ethnobotany, Doel Soejarto, PhD, reflects on the legacy of Richard Evan Schultes, sharing a marvelous photograph of himself and Professor Schultes in the Amazon in 1963. Dr. Soejarto, last year’s recipient of the American Botanical Council’s Norman R. Farnsworth Excellence in Botanical Research Award, humbly links his own remarkable achievements in exploring for new medicines from plants in Southeast Asia — including his discovery of the anti-HIV drug Calanolide A — to lessons he learned from Professor Schultes.

The penultimate chapter by Robert Voeks, PhD, Leaa Short, and Aline Gregorio evaluates the legacy of the journal Economic Botany, which was championed by Professor Schultes since its inception in 1947, illustrating how it has become increasingly internationalized and rigorous through the years.

The volume concludes with a magnificent chapter by James L. Zarucchi, PhD, of the Missouri Botanical Garden, which is replete with remarkable color photographs of Professor Schultes in Columbia. Deeply moving to me is his photograph of Professor Schultes and Arthur Sledge in England, at the grave of the 19th century Amazonian ethnobotanical explorer Richard Spruce.

Every student of ethnobotany, every firm that compounds plant medicines, and, indeed, every field biologist, should have a copy of Medicinal Plants and the Legacy of Richard E. Schultes. I pinch myself that I was so lucky to have had him as one of my mentors. By adding to this compilation the masterful biography of Dr. Schultes by Wade Davis, PhD, One River (Touchstone, 1996), any of Dr. Balick’s books on ethnobotany or palm systematics, and perhaps one of the popular books by Mark Plotkin, PhD, you will be able to come very close to the wonderful experience I had as a student with Professor Schultes.

—Paul Alan Cox, PhD Institute for Ethnomedicine Jackson Hole, WY