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Richard Schultes
Richard Schultes
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Richard Schultes Interview (page: 3 / 8)

The Father of Modern Ethnobotany

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  Richard Schultes

Think back to 1941. When you arrived in the Amazon for the very first time, what was your reaction, what were your feelings?

Richard Schultes: The immensity of the forest. I knew from books that the Amazon was rich in a number of species, but... I never expected to see such a tangle of different roots, vines, lianas going up to the tops of 100-foot trees. And it is breathtaking. One of the first took me maybe six months or a year to get used to this. What shall I collect, with all of these plants? Of course you wanted to collect everything!

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Richard Schultes Interview Photo
I had done some work in the highland of southern Mexico, which has a wonderful flora, but extremely limited in comparison with the wet lowland tropics of the Amazon. There are many plants that we have up here, such as oaks and pines. I really didn't feel that much out of New England when I could see a white pine, but in the Amazon everything was different. That's probably the first impression that I got. The second was of course to find these Indians so helpful, because I had read some of these books about how treacherous they were, and how dangerous. I don't believe in censorship, but I believe that some of our publishing houses should send manuscripts to people who have been in the Amazon before they publish some of these books.

What kind of experiences did you have when you were collecting plants? How did you find out if the natives had a practical use for a particular plant? What tipped you off?

Richard Schultes Interview Photo
Richard Schultes: I can tell you one experience, if we use that term. For example, I collected many plants that had no uses, because I was in a new region. The only other botanist who had ever been in my area was Richard Spruce 140 years ago, a British botanist who was there for four years. He did wonderful work. So even though a plant had no known use, I would collect it. All my work was in an 18-foot aluminum canoe, and I couldn't carry too much. So in each river I would collect a plant, once, unless I felt it might be a species new to science, and then I'd collect more. So we were paddling up the overhanging branches, and I'm collecting.

I may collect 30 or 40 different plants in a morning with the Indians paddling. And, in most cases they would say nothing if I took a plant and put it in the press. But every now and again, one of the -- usually the older men -- would say, "What do you want that plant for?" Now this tipped me off that they had a use of it. But, you don't go right out and say, "What do you use if for?" So, I invented many diseases. They must think my race is more decrepit than it is. And I said, "This plant may be a medicinal plant for my people. We don't have it where I live." They may say nothing. The next day, I would collect it again in another locality. They may say nothing. The third day, I would collect it again, then the curiosity. One of the older men would say, "That's no good for that sickness among your people." And I would ask, "How do you know that?" and he'd reply, "That's because we use it when we have a poison stomach from eating fish that has gone bad." I might have said this might cure a sprain in my knee or my elbow, and they would say, "That won't do any good." Then they get to arguing. The younger boy who is paddling, and the older man that is guiding the canoe, they might have differences of opinion. Then the older man would say, "Don't believe him, he is so young he doesn't really know." Then of course you check in another river with other Indians to see if they have that same use, a different use, or no use. This is very slow work because you have to check.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Richard Schultes Interview Photo
Not that these people are putting me on or lying about it; there is a scientific reason. If a plant is used over a wide area by people who have no contact with each other, for the same or similar purpose, that is a plant that should be investigated chemically because they have come up with the same or similar uses.

Here's a good example of this. There is a hallucinogenic snuff made from the resin that is in the bark of a certain tree in the Amazon, and all over Latin America. All the wet tropical forests have this tree. Now this resin has two other uses. One, in certain tribes it is put on arrows as an arrow poison. I've seen it work. We know what it is that causes it to be hallucinogenic, we still don't know what it is that kills an animal. It's not a fast death like the curare arrow poison, which is another plant. The other use is as an anti-fungal medicine. We have very little in our own pharmacopoeia for athlete's foot or for jock itch. We have suppressants, but if it gets into the living part of the skin, underneath the dead part which is outside, you have it for life, and all you can do is suppress it when it comes out, when the conditions are right.

Richard Schultes Interview Photo
So I thought this was very important. The natives in a number of tribes go out in the morning, strip some of the bark from this tree, take that red resin and paint it on fungus infections of the skin, which are very common in the wet tropics, ringworm and all those things. They go out, they let it dry. The next morning they do the same thing, and so on for ten or 15 days, and I have seen the redness disappear. Now this could be a suppression, or it could be a cure. They think it's a cure. But even if it's a suppression, we should know what it is that does that. Now I gathered a number of pieces of bark, and sent them to two drug firms on two different occasions. I had to dry them under the sun, because they are fresh and wet. If I just packaged them up, they would have been rotten after the month or two in the mails. They found nothing fungicidal in it, noting active against fungi.

Later, one of my students was working among Indians in Dutch Guiana. He found two tribes using the same plant for the same purpose. Dutch Guiana was 800 air miles from my area, and these people had had absolutely no contact, couldn't have had. Furthermore, reading back in an old French report on the plants of French Guiana in 1775, the same use was reported. With all of that, I assumed that my drying of these pieces of bark had changed the chemistry - ultraviolet light, the heat of the sun, or something. Recently, a very interesting thing happened. A very good resilient chemist working in Manaus, which is a city in the middle of the Amazon -- who could go out in his automobile and get fresh bark and get right back to the laboratory -- found three chemical substances, two of which he thinks are responsible for the fungicidal activity.

It's a long drawn out experience. I will probably never live long enough to see some of these things develop into new medicines.

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