Director Emeritus of the Botanical Museum of Harvard University, died on April 10 at the age of 86. Schultes was born in Boston and obtained his undergraduate, masters, and doctoral degree at Harvard.
Widely hailed as the “Father of Ethnobotany,” he carried out pioneering research on the relationship between people and plants in the Americas for many decades. Schultes studied the use of peyote by Native Americans in Oklahoma as an undergraduate, the use of “magic” mushrooms by the Mazatec peoples of southern Mexico as a graduate student (which led to the development of viskin, an important cardiac drug), and spent well over a decade in the northwest Amazon studying local tribespeople and medicinal plants.
He collected over 24,000 specimens of plants in the Amazon, almost 2000 of which are employed for medicinal purposes. Schultes not only discovered many new species of plants, he described many of these himself. His best known discovery is often thought to be “ayahuasca” (also known as “yage”), the famous vision vine of the northwest Amazon. He may have been famous for popularizing the plant in the 1940’s, but the discovery of ayahuasca by outside explorers goes to English botanist Richard Spruce, a one time British schoolteacher who was one of the earliest explorers to make the often-fatal journey into the Amazon. In 1851, while exploring the upper Rio Negro of the Brazilian Amazon, he observed the use of yage among the Tukano Indians of Brasil. In his “Notes of a Botanist”, he described its sources, its preparation and its effects upon himself.
Schultes made many important contributions to economic botany. Many species (“schultesii”) and one genus (“Resia”) were named after him, proof of the high regard in which he was held by botanical colleagues. He published over 25 articles on the rubber tree, important papers on both palms and orchids, and major articles on Herrania and Micrandra (close relatives of rubber and chocolate, respectively) whose importance will increase as genetic engineering and biotechnology facilitates inter-generic crosses.
He was a particularly prolific author, having published over 450 scientific articles and ten books, including the classic “Plants of the Gods” (co-authored with Albert Hoffman). Schultes was a great teacher, traveling around the world to lecture to students who (as he put it) “didn’t have the opportunity to attend Harvard.” He was also regarded as one of the Founding Fathers of the rain forest conservation movement, decrying the destruction of both forests and tribal cultures as early as 1963, well before most people recognized the existence of the problem. For both his work and his farsightedness, he was awarded the Cross of Boyaca (Colombia’s highest award) as well as the Gold Medal of the World Wildlife Fund. Schultes inspired an enormous following from several generations: everyone from holistic medical guru Dr. Andrew Weil (a former student) to Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson to beat poet Allen Ginsburg.
Another former student, Mark Plotkin of the Amazon Conservation Team, said “Professor Schultes inspired several generations of students to pursue careers devoted to protecting the environment. His message of the importance of indigenous wisdom is as relevant as ever.” And Tom Lovejoy of the World Bank said, “He was a true giant. No person has done more to understand and appreciate indigenous peoples and their knowledge. Ethnobotany is a stronger discipline and with great moral stature through his work and example.”
Schultes is survived by his wife Dorothy McNeil Schultes of Waltham, MA, his sons Richard and Neil, and his daughter Alexandra.