schultes obit

 

 

A Tribute to

Richard Evans Schultes

father of dern ethnobotany 1915-2001

reprinted from

The Daily Telegraph

Richard Schultes who has died in Boston, Massachusetts, aged 86, was the father of modern ethnobotany, the study of the use of plants by native cultures such as the Amazonian Indians, among whom he lived in the 1940s.

He was also the leading authority on peyote, ayahuasca and other hallucinogenic plants, and his researches came to influence William Burroughs, Aldous Huxley and the drug culture of the 1960s.

Schultes was regarded as the last of the great plant explorers in the tradition of William Dampier and Alexander von Humboldt. Clad in a pith helmet, for much of the 1940s and 1950s he navigated the tributaries of the Amazon in a portable aluminum canoe, relying on the hospitality of local Indians.

He documented the use by them of more then 2,000 medicinal plants, and gathered some 24,000 specimens. He also gave his name to 120 species, as well as to 2.2 million acres of rain forest protected by the Colombian government; Schultes was among the first to chard the growing threat to the eco-culture of the Amazon.

The hallmark of his work was his sympathy and sensitivity to the ways of life he encountered. He happily chewed coca powder with tribesmen, and treated the often fearsome-looking people he met with disarming courtesy. He never carried a firearm, “I do not believe in hostile Indians,” he said. “All that is required to bring out their gentlemanliness is reciprocal gentlemanliness.”

His research into plants that produces hallucinogens brought his scientific works an underground following in the 1960s, and he met both Burroughs and Timothy Leary. He afforded neither much respect. Schultes chided the latter for mis-spelling the Latin names of plants, and when Burroughs describes a psychedelic trip as an earth-shattering experience, his response was: “that’s funny, Bill, all I saw were colours.”

Richard Evans Schultes was born in Boston on January 12 1915, the son of an engineer who put plumbing in breweries.

As a boy he pressed leaves and flowers, but dated his particular fascination with South America to an illness he had at six which confined him to bed for several months. His parents read to him from Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and the Andes (1908), the travel diary kept by the English naturalist Richard Spruce, whose adventures made a powerful impression on Schultes.

He was educated at East Boston High School and then won a scholarship to Harvard, where ho soon switched from medicine to botany. Making the peyote cactus the subject of his dissertation, Schultes spent a month with the Kiowa Indians of Oklahoma, who used the sacred cactus ceremonially to commune with their ancestors.

Schultes also partook of the hallucinogen, remarking later that “it would have been unpardonable rudeness to refuse.“

For his doctorate, Schultes then studied teonanactl, the sacred mushroom of the Mexican Indians of Oaxaca, which he was the first to identify, and ololiqui, a vine whose psychoactive seeds have properties similar to LSD.

In 1941, Schultes traveled to the Colombian Amazon to investigate the source of curare, which as well as being poison had also been used in hospitals since the 1930s as a muscle relaxant. He discovered that different types of curare called for as many as 15 ingredients, and in time helped to identify more than 70 species that produced the drug.

During the Second World War, Schultes searched the Amazon for alternative sources of rubber to the Malayan plantations occupied by the Japanese. He taught Indians how to tap latex, and became an expert on the genus Heva, the principle species of rubber tree.

With the return of peace, he once more took to his canoe, and for a dozen years lived in the rain forest.

Sometimes surviving for days on end on tins of condensed milk, he fended off bouts of malaria and beri-beri, once having to paddle for 40 days while ill to reach help. On his travels he collected thousands of samples, many of which were regulaly used by shamans to successfully treat illness.

Some of these plants now carry Schultes’s name, including Pauroma schultesii, a bark whose ashes are used to treat ulcers, and Hiraea schultesii, whose leaves cure conjunctivitis.

Schultes maintained that contrary to popular conception, the Indians were eager to share their medical secrets. But, he warned in 1994: “The Indian people and their knowledge is disappearing even faster than the plants themselves.”

He returned to Harvard in 1953, where he eventually became a professor of biology and director of the university’s botanical museum.

He had a rather quirky sense of humour, sometimes demonstrating his proficiency with a 6ft blowpipe in lectures, and refusing to vote for American presidential candidates, replacing their name on the ballot with that of the Queen.

Schultes published nine books, including Plants of the Gods (1979), written with Albert Hofmann, the chemist who synthesized LSD. He received the Gold Medal of the Linnean Society in 1992.

He is survived by his wife Dorothy (née McNeil), whom he married in 1959, and by two sons and a daughter.

 

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