AUSTIN, Texas (February 29, 2016) — The American Botanical Council (ABC) is pleased to announce John Thor Arnason, PhD, as the recipient of the 2015 ABC Norman R. Farnsworth Excellence in Botanical Research Award. Arnason is a professor of biology at the University of Ottawa in Ontario, Canada, and his lab specializes in the phytochemistry and biological activity of plants.
ABC presents this award each year to a person who has made significant contributions to research in the fields of ethnobotany and/or medicinal plant research.
Norman Farnsworth, PhD, who died in 2011 at 81, was one of the co-founding members of ABC’s Board of Trustees, a research professor of pharmacognosy, and a senior university scholar in the College of Pharmacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“I knew Norman Farnsworth very well,” Arnason said. “I really admired his efforts to make traditional [herbal] medicine a recognized field of study in North America.”
Arnason’s career began in the late 1970s when he worked with Maya healers in Belize. He then did post-doctoral work in Vancouver with Neil Towers, PhD, a pioneer of botanical medicine. In 1980, Arnason started his own lab at the University of Ottawa. He and colleagues studied the ethnobotany of eastern Canada and the adjacent United States. They published an article, “Use of plants for food and medicine by Native Peoples of eastern Canada,” which identified more than 400 medicinal plants with 2,000 uses.
In the 1990s, ABC Founder Mark Blumenthal asked Arnason to be part of ABC’s ginseng evaluation project, which looked at the quality of ginseng products available on the North American market. Also in the 1990s, Arnason and his students revised details of the taxonomy, phytochemistry, and biological activity of the genus Echinacea.
Now, Arnason is working with the northern Cree people, in collaboration with Pierre Haddad, PhD, to look for new treatments for diabetes, a serious health problem on native reserves in Canada and the US. “What we found is that some of the plants have completely novel compounds in them that are as active as standard diabetic drugs,” Arnason said.
In addition, Arnason’s team is working with Costa Rican botanists and Maya healers to find mental health treatments. This work involves plants in the little-studied Marcgraviaceae family. “The plants in this family are very good at reducing anxiety,” Arnason said. He has also worked with traditional healers in Borneo, East Timor, and Togo.
“Thor exemplifies some of the best aspects of medicinal plant research,” said Blumenthal. “He is an ethnobotanist, working with indigenous peoples who share their traditional plant wisdom, and he is also a laboratory scientist who explores the chemistry of these plants.”
ABC Chief Science Officer Stefan Gafner added: “I consider Thor to be one of the foremost North American researchers in ethnobotany. He has also contributed to our knowledge of many of the more widely used botanicals. But most of all, he is a very generous and humble person.”
Past recipients of the Farnsworth award include: Joseph Betz, PhD (2005); Edzard Ernst, MD, PhD (2006); Hildebert Wagner, PhD (2007); Ikhlas Khan, PhD (2008); Rudolf Bauer, PhD (2009); A. Douglas Kinghorn, PhD (2010); Djaja Soejarto, PhD (2011); De-An Guo, PhD (2012); Gordon Cragg, PhD (2013); and Harry Fong, PhD (2014).
The award will be presented at the 11th Annual ABC Botanical Celebration and Awards Ceremony on March 10, 2016, in Anaheim, California. The event, for ABC Sponsor Members, occurs during Natural Products Expo West.