Last week’s annual meeting of the Society for General Microbiology held in Birmingham England, announced some really exciting new research or the Society has a really good publicist. Papers presented at the meeting made worldwide news. One paper from researchers at Cardiff Metropolitan University, showed that date syrup a common sweetener in the Middle East, has antibacterial activity against Staphylococcus aureus and Escherichia coli (the ubiquitous “E. coli”), that was as good as or better than honey as an antibiotic. Okay, like I said the Society has a great publicist. Researchers from the University of York reported on the discovery of a unique set of enzymes that help the bacterium Staphylococcus hominis create compounds called thioalcohols—revealing the chemical key to turning sweat into body odor! Good work publicist!
The study that got the most air, print, and internet play was from researchers at the University of Nottingham who reported that a complex formula teased from a thousand-year-old Anglo-Saxon manuscript in the collection of the British Museum—Bald’s Leechbook—was surprisingly effective against methicillin-resistant Staphylococus aureus, better known as MRSA.
You don’t want a spacesuit encased physician to walk into your hospital room to inform you that you have MRSA and that they will have to move you to the hospital’s Ebola wing. . . The irony of this misplaced humor is that eight years ago, my father went to visit my older brother in a hospital after surgery, and just from visiting, my dad got a staph infection that is still with him now. And today, 10 April 2015, I write these words as I sit at my step son’s hospital bed after he had an operation yesterday. As he snores softly while firmly in the embrace of Morphius, the words repeat in my head, “wash your hands often.”
Likely in rural England 1,000 years ago, human immune systems were much more active than today, stimulated by what was undoubtedly a microbial-rich domestic environment. The 9th century recipe studied by the University of Nottingham scientists included two types of onion relatives, combined with wine and oxgall.
Dr. Christina Lee, Associate Professor in Viking Studies and member of the University’s Institute for Medieval Research translated the recipe, the original of which was reportedly a topical eye salve formula. The recipe not only calls for two species of Allium (garlic and onion or leek), wine and oxgall (bile from a cow’s stomach), it also describes a very specific method of making the preparation in a brass vessel, straining it then allowing the mixture to cure for nine days before use. See 30 March 2015 Press Release from the University of Nottingham. A video with interviews with the researchers is embedded in the press release.
The scientists at Nottingham made four separate batches of the remedy using fresh ingredients each time, as well as a control treatment using the same quantity of distilled water and brass sheet to mimic the brewing container but without the vegetable compounds. Microbiologists at the University of Nottingham then recreated and tested the concoction against MRSA, and were astounded to find a more than 90% effective rate against the bacterium.
Dr Lee (quoted in the Press Release linked above) said: “We were genuinely astonished at the results of our experiments in the lab. We believe modern research into disease can benefit from past responses and knowledge, which is largely contained in non-scientific writings. But the potential of these texts to contribute to addressing the challenges cannot be understood without the combined expertise of both the arts and science.
“Medieval leech books and herbaria contain many remedies designed to treat what are clearly bacterial infections (weeping wounds/sores, eye and throat infections, skin conditions such as erysipelas, leprosy and chest infections). Given that these remedies were developed well before the modern understanding of germ theory, this poses two questions: How systematic was the development of these remedies? And how effective were these remedies against the likely causative species of bacteria? Answering these questions will greatly improve our understanding of medieval scholarship and medical empiricism, and may reveal new ways of treating serious bacterial infections that continue to cause illness and death.”
Dr Freya Harrison, a University of Nottingham microbiologist led the work in the laboratory with Dr Steve Diggle and Research Associate Dr Aled Roberts. She presented the findings at the Annual Conference of the Society for General Microbiology on Monday 30th March 2015 in Birmingham, England.
According to the press release, Dr Harrison commented: “We thought that Bald’s eyesalve might show a small amount of antibiotic activity, because each of the ingredients has been shown by other researchers to have some effect on bacteria in the lab – copper and bile salts can kill bacteria, and the garlic family of plants make chemicals that interfere with the bacteria’s ability to damage infected tissues. But we were absolutely blown away by just how effective the combination of ingredients was. We tested it in difficult conditions too; we let our artificial ‘infections’ grow into dense, mature populations called ‘biofilms’, where the individual cells bunch together and make a sticky coating that makes it hard for antibiotics to reach them. But unlike many modern antibiotics, Bald’s eye salve has the power to breach these defences.”
Denied further funding for the project by a UK government agency, the “AncientBiotics Project” leader Dr. Freya Harrison is using Crowdfunder.co.uk page to request small contributions to continue the research.
The short video clip accompanying the University of Nottingham press release very briefly mentions the 1865 (Volume 2) of T. O. Cockayne’s translations from Bald’s Leechbook (and others). You can access the three volumes (1864, 1865, & 1866, respectively) by clicking on the links below:
One element missing from most news reports on the AncientBiotics Project is the fact that this type of multidisciplinary research called “text mining” is relatively new. Historians or linguists search historic manuscripts or antiquarian books for targeted words or concepts, then field and laboratory researchers from various disciplines use the data to design experiments. The Internet increases text mining exponentially, since once doesn’t have to be in the physical presence of a manuscript to review it, since many records are now digitized and readily accessible on-line. Similar research is being quietly conducted worldwide.
We all know that Christopher Columbus didn’t discover America, but he gets credit for it. Why? It is because the printing press arrived in Europe in 1440, developed by the German goldsmith, Gutenberg. The Chinese had developed movable type and printing processes 600 years earlier. The printing press allowed news to travel faster. The 1493 letter of Christopher Columbus to his sponsors describing his discoveries was immediately published in several languages and distributed throughout Europe. One can image him bowing before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and with a wink and smile while saying, “It’s all in the P.R.”
It is a time of renewal—Spring. The spring equinox arrived along with a new moon, a moment of perigee (the moon’s closes point to the sun), and to top it all off, a total of solar eclipse, mostly seen in northern Europe. The cosmos screamed—“time for a change.” Roadsides, woodlands, and yards are beginning to green-up after a dreary winter. We enjoy the delight of jonquils and a chorus of songbirds by sunrise. It’s also a time for new books on natural history topics.
Imagine what European settlers arriving in the early 1700s thought about their first American spring. A wide-eyed, well-educated English naturalist of means, Mark Catesby (1683-1749) arrived in Virginia in 1712. Tuesday March 24th 2015 was his 333rd birthday. Catesby collected plants, particularly seeds, along with specimens of fauna and minerals then sent them back to England received by scientists eager to describe the new finds.
Much of what Catesby saw was new to science. He took up watercolor painting to record his observations. In 1719 he returned to England and wealthy sponsors encouraged his return to America in 1722, this time to South Carolina, where he stayed until 1726. Upon returning to England, he spent the next seventeen years illustrating and writing his monumental large-folia two-volume Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands: Containing the Figures of Birds, Beats, Fishes, Serpents, Insects, and Plants. . . ” (first published in ten parts from 1731-1742). One of the great classics of American natural history literature, it includes watercolors and descriptions of flora and fauna, many depicted for the first time, such as the exceedingly rare or extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and extinct birds such as the Carolina Parakeet and Passenger Pigeon. The original watercolors are in the Royal art collection at Windsor Castle. The first edition of 160 copies, with hand-colored plates many from the hand of Catesby himself, are quite precious. You can find an occasional copy for around $640,000.
The spring of 2015 brings with it a new book The Curious Mr. Catesby published by the University of Georgia Press. Lavishly illustrated and a fascinating read, it features 23 chapters on various aspects of Catesby’s work. Like a new spring, Catesby’s contribution to American natural history, continue to inspire. Like the first edition of his “Natural History”, The Curious Mr. Catesby, is an enduring example of why e-books will never replace the printed bound book as a physical object to hold and enjoy.
If you don’t have a spare half-million plus, you can view Catesby’s Natural HistoryVolume 1 and Volume 2at the Biodiversity Heritage Library. These are just two of the nearly 160,000 volumes available at this incredible resource. Viewing a digital copy is one thing. Seeing the first edition in its physical form is a thrill for anyone interest in natural history. On April 19, 2015 the Lloyd Library and Museum in Cincinnati in partnership with the Cincinnati Nature Center, the Cincinnati Museum Center, and the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, will hold an opening and book release party for The Curious Mister Catesby at the Cincinnati Museum Center. The opening will feature panel lectures by leading Catesby experts including Dr. Charles Nelson and David Elliott, editors of The Curious Mr. Catesby, along with botanist Prof. W. Hardy Eshbaugh (Miami University, Ohio) and Leslie Overstree, Curator of Natural History Rare Books at the Smithsonian Library. For more information on the extraordinary life and travels of Mark Catesby visit the Catesby Commemorative Trust.
The Lloyd Library and Museum’s rare first edition of Catesby’s Natural History will be on display along with the Cincinnati Museum’s second edition.
The palace of the last Aztec king, Montezuma (1466-1520), was adorned with a gift from the gods—Cutetlaxochitl—“the flower that perishes like all that is pure.” In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Aztec’s Christian conquerors adopted this plant festooned with green and red leaves to symbolize the blood of Christ and rebirth of life. We know it today as Poinsettia. Native to Mexico and Central America, Poinsettias are not the neat 1–2 foot tall potted plants familiar to Americans rather they are tropical shrubs 4–15 feet tall! The red leaf-like bracts or floral leaves beneath the barely noticeable flowers are what attracts our attention. A member of the spurge or euphorbia family (Euphorbiaceae), Poinsettia is known to botanists as Euphorbia pulcherrima Willd. ex Klotsch. A synonym is Poinsettia pulcherrima (Willd. ex Klotsch) Graham. “Pulcherrima” means beautiful.
In 1825 soon after Mexico became independent, President John Quincy Adams offered the new diplomatic post to Tennessee Senator, Andrew Jackson. Jackson declined the position as he aspired to another job—the job that Adams held. The populist Jackson defeated the cerebral John Qunicy Adams in the general election of 1828. President Adams appointed a South Carolina politician with botanical interests to the post of Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary at the U.S. Mission in Mexico City. His name was Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851).
The plant that once adorned Montezuma’s palace intrigued Minister Poinsett. He sent cuttings back to Charleston, South Carolina and to Philadelphia nurseryman Robert Buist. Buist shared Poinsett’s beautiful euphorbia with the first nursery to propagate the plant and offer it for sale—Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia, America’s original nursery and botanical garden established in 1728 by John Bertram (1699-1777). In 1829, Bartram’s granddaughter, Ann Bartram Carr and her husband Col. Robert Carr introduced “a beautiful euphorbia” into the commercial trade. In 1834, Buist distributed plants to botanical enthusiasts in the United Kingdom. Then in 1836, Dr. Robert Graham of the Botanic Garden Edinburgh named the plant for Poinsett. The gangly, weedy greenhouse novelty remained just that until the Ecke family of Encinitas, California developed a proprietary grafting method on dwarf stock and mass-produced the plant for the Christmas trade. They are the seasonal potted plants that we know today by the common name Poinsettia.
If you are a savvy aficionado of Mexican political slang, you may honor America’s first ambassador to an independent Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, as the inspiration for the word poinsettisimo—an expression denoting an obnoxious, arrogant or high-handed government official.
I will be conducting a day-long photo workshop at the American Botanical Council’s Case Mill Homestead headquarters in Austin on December 6th. See this link for more information.
We admire them, we love them, we use them. Do we really know them? A great way to consciously spend more time with plants is to photograph them. With photography, what you see is not necessarily what you get. There’s a few things to know about what makes a good photograph, and how to capture it. It doesn’t matter if you are using an iPhone or hauling around 20 pounds of camera equipment. How do we see plants in a way that helps us to better understand them? There’s plenty of information to learn from books, but spending time with plants is a great way to gain more knowledge and understanding of plants and how to see them. Photography is only a tool that allows us to slow down to spend time with plants. Ultimately you photograph what you feel, not just what you see.The great American photographer, Ansel Adams wrote, “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.” The objective of this workshop is to give you confidence with your ability to see the plant world through the eye of the camera to produce good photographs.
Photography is about understanding simple concepts such as light and timing—being in the right place at the right time, and patience. Like anything worth doing, photographing plants requires practice, and that gives us the opportunity to learn more about plants at the same time. Learning to keep your photography simple and understanding the equipment you have will enhance the quality of photography and the intrinsic value of your time with plants.
Topics Covered: The focus will be on techniques and ideas for improving photographic skills with practical hands-on fieldwork. It’s more about understanding simple concepts—lighting, being in the right place at the right time, and patience. And like anything worth doing, practice, practice, practice. We will explore working with ambient natural light and making the most of the equipment you have. Nature presents special conditions for photographing in the environment.
One key to successfully capturing images is to know and understand your equipment. I’m an equipment geek, so I would recommend a decent digital camera body, close-up lens (macro lens or a diopter for a fixed lens). When people ask me what “my secret” is to getting great plant photographs, I can attribute it to one piece of equipment my a tripod. Photographing plants may require relatively long exposures, so besides the camera itself, a decent sturdy tripod and cable release is very helpful for plant photography. One other very essential piece of equipment is the camera manual. Read, re-read it and read it again until you begin to understand all of the features available and understand your camera’s basic operation. If you don’t have an array of equipment, don’t worry. You can take great photographs with your mobile phone.
As George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak put it, “Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.”
We will cover essentials helping to understand photographic concepts such as depth of field, focus, exposure, composition, making the most of ambient light, and macro techniques. This is a hand-on experience.
When the first published Western description of ginseng appeared in a French journal in 1713, there was no mention of ginseng’s reputation as an aphrodisiac or to enhance virility, likely because the earliest European writers on ginseng were Jesuit priests. In 1725 Pope Benóit XIII received a gift of ginseng from the Chinese Emperor. No comment from the Vatican.
Virginian, Colonel William Byrd II (1674-1744), pictured in a 1725 portrait, with confident swagger was an obvious ginseng nibbler. Writing on 31 May 1737 to Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753, British Museum founder ) he muses, “Insomuch that were I to judge the veracity of the Jesuits by this Instance, I shou’d pronounce them very honest Fellows. As for the merry Effects ascribd to it towards obliging the Bashfull Sex, the good [Jesuit] Father[s] say nothing of it, nor dos my Experience reach so far.” In a letter of 20 August 1737 to Sloane, Byrd continues, “I believe ever since the Tree of Life has been so strongly guarded the Earth has never produced any vegetable so friendly to man as Ginseng. Nor do I say this at Random, or by the Strength of my Faith, but by my own Experience. I have found it very cordial and reviving after great Fatigue, it warms the Blood frisks the Spirits strengthens the Stomach and comforts the Bowels exceedingly. All this it performs without any of those naughty Effects that might make men too troublesome and impertinent to their poor Wives.” Oh, but the mistresses. . .
Some 18th century Dr. Oz probably hawked ginseng root on a London street corner with a wink and a smile to the passerby. But where there’s health claims for herbs, there’s always an all-knowing expert to debunk it, like Scottish physician, William Cullen (1710-1790), in his 1789 Materia Medica (vol 2, p.161)—“I have known a gentleman a little advanced in life, who chewed a quantity of this root every day for several years, but who acknowledged that he never found his venereal faculties in the least improved by it.”
The protocol of the famed Dr. Cullen was followed for treatment of George Washington’s sore throat on what became his last day in December 1799: blood letting (124 ounces removed), blistering his throat with an irritating beetle, copious evacuation of the bowels—and when all else—fails, a dose of mercury. Two of the three attending physicians achieved their medical degrees under the instruction of Dr. Cullen at the University of Edinburgh.
Cause of death? “Learned quackery,” to quote sectarian rival contemporaries.
In my Eureka Nature column, August 16, 2012, in the Eureka Springs Independent Newspaper, I posed the question what’s in the name Leatherwood (as in Lake Leatherwood and Leatherwood Creek) and whether that name referred to a small shrub known as Leatherwood (Dirca palustris) or some other plant, person, or place. The plant had not been collected in Carroll County since the early 20th century. In fact it is absent for Carroll County in the new Atlas of the Vascular Plants of Arkansas a publication of the Arkansas Vascular Flora Project, just released a few weeks ago. The Atlas has county range maps for 2,892 species of vascular plants known from Arkansas. Of course, it reflects what we don’t know as much as what we do know. It presents the opportunity to fill gaps in knowledge. Trained field botanists working in Arkansas are an extremely rare species. There’s simply not legions of botanists doing systematic field botany and collecting herbarium specimens— dried, pressed, physical specimens — the scientific foundation for plant geography and taxonomy.
On Sunday May 4th, I was delighted to be invited to tag along with a small legion of botanists at Lake Leatherwood. Led by Theo Whitsel, long-time botanist with the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, a group of 12 “brain trust” leading botanical experts from Arkansas and Missouri, did a quick walk through Leatherwood trails just to see what might be there. It was a quick “drive-by” on their way to other locations such as the new Devil’s Eyebrow Natural Area in Benton County, just north of Eureka Springs off of Highway 62, a 2,000 acre research just dedicated a year ago on the cold, snowy morning of May 3rd 2013.
To my surprise, there along the edge of the Hyde Hollow drainage growing in the moist gravel at the edge of the creek was Dirca palustris, the Leatherwood shrub. I had been in that same location many times before, but just hadn’t noticed it. It’s non-showy flowers are among the earliest of the season, blooming long before the leaves unfold.
Leatherwood is a small shrub, about three feet tall; a member of the mezerum family (Thymelaeaceae) found along creek bottoms from New Brunswick, west to North Dakota, couth to Florida and Louisiana. It is found in northwest and southwest Arkansas, but is not particularly common anywhere. Dirca is the only North American genus of the largely tropical plant family to which it belongs. Dirca palustris is an obscure medicinal plant, which like other members of the mezerum family are better known for their toxicity than their medicinal benefits. The fruit is considered toxic, and the fresh root, applied to the skin causes blistering. Tiny doses of the fresh bark causes vomiting and diarrhea. It is among the most obscure American medicinal plants.
Naturalist-explorer C.S. Rafinesque (1783-1840) provides insights into the potential of Leatherwood in Medical flora, or Manual of the medical botany of the United States of North America. 2 vols. Philadelphia, Samuel C. Atkinson. In the first volume (pp: 158-161) he notes:
“The blossoms are scentless and appear very early in the Spring, as soon as the Maples blossoms, long before the leaves are unfolded. The bark is very tough, can hardly be broken, and tearing in long stripes is used as yet in many parts for ropes, a practice borrowed from the Indian tribes : the wood is also flexible. The berries are poisonous, children must avoid them : if eaten by mistake, an emetic must be resorted to. . . . When the bark is chewed it produces salivation, it is so tough that it cannot be reduced to powder, but forms only a kind of lint. The watery preparations are nearly inert.”
In another interesting twist to the Leatherwood, story is the work of the Kansas State University research team of Aaron J. Floden, Mark H. Mayfield and Carolyn J. Ferguson in 2009. A new, single population of “Dirca palustris” was collected in Kansas in 1997. As the researchers looked more closely at the plant, they discovered it was quite distinct from D. palustris, in fact in 2009 they named a new previously undescribed species—Dirca decipiens (meaning “deceptive”). Subsequently they conducted simultaneous surveys of flowering Leatherwood plants in Kansas, Missouri, and Arkansas. These field observations resulted in finding the newly named Dirca decipiens in both Benton and Carroll counties in Arkansas. It differs in producing larger fruits, without stalks, and hairy branchlets, among other features. In 2009, this rare plant was only known from three populations. Another major caveat is that it occurs on northeast facing bluffs and slopes above the valley floor in rather dry limestone habitats, rather than along creeks in rich wooded bottomlands, where one finds Dirca palustris. Dirca decipiens blooms about a week later, too (Florden, A.J., M.H. Mayfield, and C. J. Ferguson. A new narrowly endemic species of Dirca (Thymelaeaceae) from Kansas and Arkansas, with a phylogenetic overview and taxonomic synopsis of the genus” J. Bot. Res. Inst. Texas 3(2):485–499, 2009.
To my mind the mystery of where the name Leatherwood originated relative to the lake, park, and creeks of the same name is solved. No more speculation. Case closed.
Adapted and expanded from Steven Foster’s Eureka Nature column, Eureka Springs Independent Newspaper, August 16 2012 & May 7, 2014
In honor of Jim Duke’s 85th birthday (April 4th, 2014), and the release of the 3rd edition of our Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants: Eastern and Central North America (release date: April 8th, 2014). A personality profile first published in Otober 2001, updated April 4, 2014,
Jim Duke leaned over to me and warned in his Alabama drawl, “You’re going to get the tropical bug.”
My forehead stiffened with a worried glance. I pulled out my immunization card. ”What do you mean? I’ve got all of my shots. And here’s my malaria pills.”
“No,” Duke comforted, “I mean, after you come here once, you will want to come back as much as you can. If it wasn’t for the fact, that I can’t get Peggy [Jim’s wife] to live down here, I would move here myself.”
We were on a flight from Miami to the humid, heat-laden air of the ancient rainforest city of Iquitos, Peru. You may remember the main character in the 1993 new age mystery novel TheCelestine Prophecy “driving” to Iquitos. The fact is, there’s only two ways to get there — by air or via the Amazon River. There are no roads to Iquitos. “capital of the Amazon.” I was traveling to the Amazon for the first time with the American Botanical Council’s “Pharmacy from the Rainforest” program in the fall of 1995. Since our group numbered over 100 people, the instructors got bumped-up to first class. I sat next to Jim Duke, who had made the trip too many times to count (up to ten times a year). It was my first trip to the real tropics, besides a short stint in Guatemala during the dry season. The flight was rough. The flight attendants plied us with drinks, and our conversation lasted the length of the flight. Duke treated me like he was leading a kid to a candy store.
On the four-hour flight, he told me story after story, and prepared me for what lie ahead. “Every ten feet you walk, you will see something different,” Jim explained. “The diversity is incredible. Near my home in Maryland there are about 30 species of woody plants per hectare. In the Peruvian rainforest there are over 300 woody species per hectare. This unbelievable diversity must be must be experienced to be believed. Words can’t describe it.”
After a night in Iquitos, the 120+ participants loaded into boats and went down the Amazon River to Explorama Lodge, a rustic, but comfortable facility featuring all the creature comforts a rainforest camp can offer (with emphasis on “creature” as a tarantula-sized spider crawled across my room). “You get it out,” I told my roommate Larry Wilson, the herpetologist on the trip. You’re the animal guy. I’m just a plant guy.” He grudgingly obliged. Explorama Lodge served as the main camp for the trip. Two other locales were featured, Napo Camp, and ACEER Camp, up a major Amazon tributary—the Napo River.
Dr. Duke was the perfect host. One afternoon he took herbalist Amanda McQuade and me to visit a friend of his who lived on the Amazon’s banks. The farmer grew sugar cane, which he turned into a sickly sweet version of white lightening in a battered old copper still. “Rum”, Jim called it. The farmer’s wife made drinks for us — half fresh-squeezed ginger juice and half “rum”. It sure took the cares away, and cured the tourista, too. Why, if an Anaconda had swam by in the nearby rushing waters of the Amazon, I might have just hopped on its back and taken a ride to our next day’s venue — ACEER.
ACEER— the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research— was a couple hours away by boat (followed by a 30-minute hike through the primary rainforest. ACEER is Jim Duke’s home away from home, now that he is “retired”. At ACEER, Jim Duke, along his local shaman colleague, Don Antonio, freely share knowledge on the ethnobotany of Amazonia. Duke’s infectious love of the Amazon, its people and flora inspire all who travel there, as he tromps barefoot through the jungle, seemingly oblivious to the ants, swarms of insects, and occasional reptile that might lurk beneath the understory. For those who know Jim Duke from North American venues such as scientific conferences, herb gatherings, or a North Carolina bluegrass stage, you know that his is really at home — where his heart is — when you see him in the primary rainforest of the Amazon.
Duke was right about his prediction. I did get the tropical bug. Since traveling to the Amazon with him, I am committed to taking a trip to a tropical location at least once a year. I thank him for that.
I met Jim Duke in the autumn of 1978 long before his fame had traveled from the halls of relative academic obscurity to herbal celebrity. We met in the backyard of Paul Lee PhD who had been unceremoniously dismissed from a teaching position at Harvard (along with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert aka Ram Dass) after publication in the Harvard Crimson of an exposé on LSD experimentation co-authored by an undergraduate student later to become guru of alternative medicine—Andrew Weil, M.D.
Jim had just walked to Paul’s house from his hotel, with notebook in hand, documenting varieties of opium poppies (Papaversomniferum) whichgrew as ornamentals in people’s yards. At the time I was 21 years old. I had just left the Sabbathday Lake Maine Shaker Community where I had been for four years. Having grown up in Maine, that trip to California, was my first trip west — west of New York City. Here, I was meeting some of the giants of medicinal plant research for the first time. We were attending an international herb symposium at U.C. Santa Cruz organized by Paul Lee.
First impressions are everything. I didn’t even know how to start a conversation with someone of the stature of Jim Duke. He was one of the few medicinal plants researchers at the time, and certainly the only scientist in the Federal government researching herbal medicines (at least clandestinely if not officially). At the time he was Chief of USDA’s Economic Botany Laboratory in the Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Maryland.
Humility rarely follows success. Duke, as he refers to himself, turned out to be a Southern gentleman first, a famous scientist second. His interest in poppies grew out of his second stint with USDA starting in 1971, which took him to Iran to study species diversity in opium poppies as part of his professional role in researching crop diversification and medicinal plants in developing counties. His passion for how humans use plants as medicine, rolled from his tongue like a kid licking a lollypop. At once, he put me at ease. Here was a man who was more interested in what I might have to say to him than in what he might have to say to me. He stood next to a Mullein plant in Paul Lee’s garden. I snapped a photograph as Jim Duke recited a poem.
The photo of him I took that day along with the poem on mullein, are in one of Duke’s more obscure of over thirty books, Herbalbum-An Anthology of Varicose Verse, published in a staple-bound photocopied edition in 1985 — a collection of over 400 herbal poems and a couple dozen songs set to bluegrass melodies. In case you are wondering how the syllables breakout for pronunciation, that’s “herbal-bum” for the poems. The songs were released under the same Herbalbum title, but in this case pronounced “herb-album”— a vinyl record of bluegrass songs written and performed by Jim Duke and his bluegrass buddies (later released on tape and CD).
Dr. James A Duke, a key figure of the “herbal renaissance,” a phrase coined by Paul Lee, is a renaissance man in the broadest sense. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, April 4, 1929, Jim Duke was a bluegrass fiddler by age 16, even appearing at the Grande Ole Opry. An interest in plants was not far behind his interest in music. In 1955 he took a degree in botany from the University of North Carolina. In 1961 the same institution conferred a doctorate in botany upon him. Postgraduate work took him to Washington University and Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. It was there where he developed what has become to this day, as he puts it, “my overriding interest — neotropical ethnobotany.”
Early in Duke’s career with Missouri Botanical Garden his work took him to Panama where he penned painstaking technical descriptions of plants in eleven plants families for the Flora of Panama project, published in the Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden. During his years in Panama he also studied the ethnobotany of the Choco and Cuna native groups. The Choco are a forest people who lived scattered along rivers. The Cuna live in villages. Another fruit of these years was his first book — Isthmanian Ethnobotanical Dictionary, a 96-page handbook describing medicinal plants of the Central American isthmus.
In 1963, Jim Duke took a position with the USDA in Beltsville, Maryland, focusing on tropical ecology, especially seedling ecology. From 1965 to 1971, he worked on ecological and ethnological research in Panama and Colombia for Battelle Columbus Laboratories. Jim Duke doesn’t talk much about this work. However, if you put some of the pieces of the puzzle together, his more obscure scientific publications of this era reveal the focus research.
Many of his publications were prepared for his employer on behalf of the former Atomic Energy Commission. The work was akin to environmental impact statements on the effects of radiation on tropical organisms. President Kennedy had an idea. He initiated a feasibility study to widen the Panama Canal, or perhaps excavate a new canal to accommodate supertankers. The project was called the Atlantic-Pacific Interoceanic Canal. America had a tool that would easily accomplish the excavation work —nuclear devices— nuke the Central American isthmus to create a new canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific! Duke’s studies may have helped to show that the excavation technique may not be such a good idea.
After that stint, Duke returned to USDA in 1971 where he worked on crop diversification, creating a database called the “Crop Diversification Matrix” with extensive biological, ecological and economic data on thousands of cultivated crops. His interest in medicinal plants never waned no matter what unrelated tasks government bureaucrats pushed his way. In 1977 he became Chief of the Medicinal Plant Laboratory at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Maryland, and then Chief of USDA’s Economic Botany Laboratory. At the time, USDA was under contract with the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to collect plant materials from all over the world for screening for anti-cancer activity.
One NCI scientist with a vision to explore the plant world for potential anti-cancer compounds was the late Dr. Jonathan L. Hartwell (1906-1991). His pioneering work on the common mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) resulted in the isolation of podophyllotoxin and several other compounds known as lignans, which eventually led to the development of drugs used in chemotherapy for the treatment of testicular cancer and small cell lung cancer. In July 1960, a contract was established with NCI for USDA to begin collections of plant materials for screening potential new anticancer compounds. Over the next twenty-years, about 35,000 species of higher (flowering) plants were screened for activity against cancer. About 3,000 of those demonstrated reproducible activity. A small fraction of these (including mayapple and yew derivatives) were eventually chosen for clinical trials. Jim Duke supervised these collections in the later years of the program.
On October 2, 1981, the Board of Scientific Counselors, Division of Cancer Treatment at NCI decided to abolish its plant-screening program — not enough new drugs came from the research. Later in the 1980s new automated laboratory technologies emerged, with better cell lines targeted toward human cancers resulting in the NCI reforming its natural products screening program. This time, however, collection contracts were given to major botanical institutions such as Missouri Botanical Garden and the New York Botanical Garden, rather than USDA.
Jim Duke continued his work at USDA as Chief of the Germplasm Resources Laboratory, collecting data and plant material on food crops from around the world. He continued his association with the National Institutes of Health and the NCI working on potential anti-cancer and anti-AIDs drug leads. Later, from 1990-1992, he consulted with NCI’s Designer Food Program (to document plants with potential cancer-preventing activity) under the direction of the late Dr. Herb Pierson. During the Reagan Administration, he was also charged with the unenviable, and as Jim Duke himself admits, “impossible” task of finding a replacement crop in the Andes for coca, the ancient Inca stimulant and source of its abused alkaloid, cocaine.
Duke not only continued his personal interest in medicinal plants — increasing his database to include over 80,000 plant species — but began a flurry of publication activity which continues unabashed. Works from this era include many of his important scholarly books such as the CRC Handbook of Medicinal Herbs, (CRC Press 1985), a standard technical reference, yet still a good read for the layperson.
After more than 30 years of service, Dr. Duke retired from USDA in September of 1995. “Retirement” is hardly a word that applies in the traditional sense. It was more like a coming out party. What retirement meant for the herb world was that Jim Duke could write what he wanted to write and say what he wanted to say—no more government sensors. Retirement for him, by fate not design, was the beginning of a new career as America’s herbal guru, tempered by a dose of Alabama charm.
Ten years ago Dr. Duke lecture circuit included about 100 venues a and he led nearly 100 trips to the Amazon. He now spends most of his time at his rural farm in Maryland — Herbal Vineyard — with wife of many decades, Peggy Duke, a noted botanical illustrator and teacher in her own right. There you will find “the barefoot doctor” pulling weeds in his vast organic herb garden, perhaps the largest private medicinal herb garden in the country, with over 80 plots of plants arranged by disease condition, representing hundreds of species of medicinal herbs.
Many of the databases he produced during his decades as USDA, such as Father Nature’s Farmacy, are available on-line at (http://www.ars-grin.gov/duke/). There, you will find a wealth of information on the phytochemistry, ethnobotany, and biological activities of thousands of medicinal plants.
How do you write a story about someone you’ve known for 23 years [now for 36 years] who’s been profiled by everyone from People Magazine to the New York Times (and more than once in each) without sounding glib? When I started writing this profile, I decided to go through my Duke files. That search netted a pile of correspondence, articles by him or about nearly two feet tall. Sometimes having too much is worse than having too little!
At a seemingly ageless 85 years young , Jim Duke is still in producing new books. My library is arranged by subject; except for two authors — famed nineteenth century Cincinnati pharmacist, John Uri Lloyd and Dr. James A. Duke — both the only authors in the medicinal plant field prolific enough to warrant their own shelves. Duke has some catching up to do, though. My shelf of John Uri Lloyd books is three feet wide. My shelf of Jim Duke books is a mere two feet wide. I expect Jim Duke will make up the difference, and I hope one of the titles that fills that space will be a Jim Duke memoir [hasn’t happened yet].
The Duke Lexicon up to 2001
Duke, J. A. 1972. Isthmanian Ethnobotanical Dictionary. Fulton, Maryland: Author.
Duke, J. A. 1972. Lewd Latin Lexicon. Fulton, Maryland: Author. [A dictionary of colloquial slang in various Central American languages and dialects]
Duke, J. A. 1981. Handbook of Legumes of World Economic Importance. New York: Plenum Press.
Duke, J. A. 1981. Medicinal Plants of the Bible. Buffalo, New York: Trado-Medic Books.
Duke, J. A. 1985. Culinary Herbs: A Potpourri. New York: Conch Magazine, Ltd., Publishers.
Duke, J. A. and E. S. Ayensu 1985. Medicinal Plants of China. Algonac, Michigan, Reference Publications, Inc.
Duke, J. A. 1985. CRC Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. Boca Raton, Florida, CRC Press, Inc.
Duke, J. A. 1985. Herbalbum: An Anthology of Varicose Verse. Fulton, Maryland: Author.
Duke, J. A. 1986. Handbook of Northeastern Indian Medicinal Plants. Lincoln, Massachusetts, Quarterman Publications, Inc.
Duke, J. A. and A. A. Atchley 1986. CRC Handbook of Proximate Analysis Tables of Higher Plants. Boca Raton, Florida, CRC Press, Inc.