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If you like Richard Schultes's story, you might also like:
Lee Berger,
Norman Borlaug,
Sylvia Earle,
Paul Farmer,
Jane Goodall,
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Tim White and
Edward O. Wilson

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Richard Schultes
Richard Schultes
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Richard Schultes Interview (page: 7 / 8)

The Father of Modern Ethnobotany

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  Richard Schultes

Looking back on it, what do you think you have accomplished in all these years?

Richard Schultes: I've got a lot of material which students for many years hence will be studying. The dried specimens, with all their localities and uses, native names and scientific names. Secondly, I'm now publishing -- slowly -- my field notebooks. When I came home, I was teaching, a full load for 27 years, and I like teaching. I've been director of the Harvard Botanical Museum for 20 years, with all that administrative work. So I have had very little time for myself to write up my field notes. Now I am doing nothing but writing up my notes, slowly. It's taking a long while. I feel that out of my work on rubber, but especially on medicinal plants, there may eventually come some help for the rest of humanity. Some people say, "Oh, this is just exploiting the native." That's not true.

I'm not stealing anything from the natives, and if a new medicine comes out from one of these plants, it's possible that the natives themselves will have that medicine -- when it is once synthesized -- on a cheaper basis, and available through missionaries or commercial people or other things. Look at quinine, which was discovered by the Jesuits in Lima who had been told by the viceroy's wife, who was dying of malaria, and the Indians came in and said, "We use this: quinine tree up in the highlands." So they tried anything and it worked, and look how many hundreds of thousands of poor people - India alone - who could get cheap quinine eventually, when they made plantations. So, we're not exploiting the poor of the world because once the medicines are available cheaper and more easily, the poorer people can get them, or the so-called primitive peoples from whom we learned these things. And, all this nonsense about us going in and stealing the things from these natives and forgetting them? I never felt that way.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

Have you done what you wanted to do in life? Is this what you wanted to do, or was it an accident that you wandered into it?

Richard Schultes: I had always had an interest in collecting plants. I'm a Bostonian, but a part of my family was up in the country. In those years, Townsend, Massachusetts was a little town, and one of my uncles had a farm. We spent the summer up there. I got up at five in the morning to milk, and go out haying, and so forth, and I made collections of plants. I never thought I could earn a living collecting plants. When I came to Harvard, I became interested in economic botany, the uses of plants. I took the course here in this room, where I ended up teaching, and I got so interested in this I went to the professor. Right in the back there on those tables we had a practical laboratory each week. The week we studied narcotics, we couldn't have a practical laboratory, naturally.

And, the professor had put out on a bookshelf over there, six books. He said, "Instead of a laboratory, this week I want you to read one of these books." I must have been very busy, so I flew over and I picked out the smallest book. That book changed my life. It was written by a physiological psychologist, Heinrick Kluver, on the peyote cactus. I got so excited about this, this beautifully written book that I went to Professor Ames, and I said, "Do you think I could write my undergraduate thesis -- we have to have for honors an undergraduate thesis here -- on peyote?" I had made a report on that book, and I said, "This is what I want to go into."

[ Key to Success ] Vision

I was a pre-med student. But this put me in touch with medicinal plants. Hallucinogens, but medicinal as well. So he said, "Yes, but no student of mine writes a literary thesis. You have to go out and see this plant used." So I went way out west - a Bostonian who had never been west of the Hudson River, until I was a junior. I went way out west to Oklahoma.

I must have thought I was going to drop off the edge of the earth. And, I studied the native Kiowa and Comanche Indians in their all-night ceremony. I went out with a graduate student of anthropology from Yale. You see how broadminded we are at Harvard? A Harvard and Yale man together!

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Richard Schultes Interview Photo
We went through a couple of those all-night ceremonies, we took the peyote, and I got peyote back, and did some botanical and chemical work, and that was my undergraduate thesis. Then of course I went to Mexico and did work on the medicinal plants of the Mazatec Indians for my doctoral thesis. And I fell so much in love with Mexico, Oaxaca in the south of Mexico, that I thought my life would be devoted to that flora.

But, then came this opportunity to go for one year to the Amazon, on a grant, to study the Curare plants and their composition because extracts from it were becoming important in medicine as muscle relaxants. I took that up when I got my doctor's degree, and I thought I'd be going for a year.

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