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Richard Schultes
Richard Schultes
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Richard Schultes Interview

The Father of Modern Ethnobotany

December 15, 1990
Cambridge, Massachusetts

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  Richard Schultes

To start with, what is ethnobotany?

Richard Schultes: Ethnobotany simply means someone who is investigating plants used by primitive societies in various parts of the world. It's as simple as that. And ethnobotany has been around for many, many, many thousands of years. We are now trying to salvage some of the knowledge that primitive societies have amassed over thousands of years, and passed down from father to son orally. And with every road that goes in, every airport, every missionary, every commercial person, even tourism, this is fast disappearing.

Because, for example, when our own effective medicines are brought in and given to the Indians, they will forget, sometimes in one generation, what their forefathers discovered by experimentation. And we may be losing some wonderful short cuts to find new medicines for humanity as a whole. This is happening in all parts of the world where people still are living in what we call "primitive societies."

For someone who doesn't know a lot about botany and ethnobotany, how would you explain to them what's exciting about what you do?

Richard Schultes: I'm hoping that from my work, we may eventually find some chemicals in these plants that can be used medicinally.

Many of our common medicines were first discovered from plants, later synthesized to make them more available. But in the Amazon, for example, there are 80,000 species of plants. To give you some measuring rod, New England has 1,900 only. 80,000 species! If chemists are going to try to get material of 80,000 species and analyze them, and then give them to pharmacologists, this job will never be done, never be finished. What we should do is concentrate on those plants that people in these societies have found have some effect on the human body.

We may never use the chemicals in them. We may use them for the same purpose in some cases. We may use them for completely different reasons. For example...

What took me first to South America was to study arrow poisons, which in 1941 were becoming very important in medicine. They are important today, as the extracts are used as muscle relaxants before surgery. But here is a case: the Indian uses these poisoned arrows to kill; we are using them to help preserve life, completely different uses.

Another example is rotenone. The natives fish by throwing bark into still water in the Amazon, and these plants have rotenone in them. Now we don't want to poison our rivers any more than they are poisoned. We'd have no fish! But rotenone now is our best biodegradable insecticide. It can be sprayed over thousands of acres against insect damage, and in two or three days it is broken down, and it doesn't carry through and poison plants and animals and eventually human beings.

Some of my work may eventually pan out to be of help to humanity as a whole. I just published a book in which, in my small area of the Amazon, in the Republic of Colombia, we have 1,600 species of plants used as medicines or poisons by the natives. And, I am certain that in my 47 years of work there, I must have missed a lot. But, you can imagine 1,600 -- when the whole flora of my part of the United States, New England, has only 1,900, these people use at least 1,600!

What brought you down this path? What led you into the Amazon rain forest?

Richard Schultes Interview Photo
Richard Schultes: I was an undergraduate at Harvard, trained in botany and chemistry, and I became interested in medicinal botany. When I got my Ph.D., one of the job offers that I had was a grant from the National Research Council to go to the Amazon to study plant uses, especially the arrow poisons. So I took that and went down there. That was in 1941 when Pearl Harbor happened. I finally got back to Bogotá and went to the embassy. I was 26 or so and wanted to find my draft status. They said, "You are not going back to the States, you are going right down into the Amazon and try to get the Indians to tap wild rubber. The Japanese have taken over all of Southeast Asia, where our plantations of rubber were established by the British and Dutch. We have no more rubber, which is essential, especially for the heavy military planes." The United States government and local governments of the Amazon countries were sending men in to try to resuscitate the extraction of rubber from wild trees.

The main rubber tree, which the British took to Malaysia, was the basis of all plantations. There are nine other plants in that same group from which the Indians once got rubber. But the plantations had started to supply the world with better and cheaper rubber than the Indians had been producing under terrible -- almost slave -- conditions. So the Indians had three or four generations when they hadn't tapped wild rubber, and we were sent into the various countries to try to stimulate this for the war effort. I had been in the Amazon of Colombia, so I went right back among my Indians, and I worked on that during the war.

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This page last revised on Mar 06, 2008 17:33 EDT