Remembering Hildebert Wagner: 1929–2021
By Hannah Bauman
Professor Hildebert Wagner, PhD, died on November 5, 2021, in Breitbrunn, Germany, at age 92. His pioneering research helped elucidate the pharmacological relevance of medicinal plants and natural products, and he helped phytotherapy gain scientific recognition as part of the field of evidence-based medicine.
Wagner was born in Laufen, Germany, on August 28, 1929. In 1953, he started studying pharmacy at Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU) in Munich, Germany, and earned his doctorate in 1956 under Professor Ludwig Hörhammer, PhD. Wagner continued to collaborate with Hörhammer through his habilitation (a qualification to teach at a university in many European countries and considered the highest qualification issued through a university examination) in 1960 and professorship at LMU beginning in 1965. Wagner and Hörhammer also co-authored multiple papers on the discovery and structure elucidation of bioactive compounds in plants. These discoveries included flavones from mandarin orange (Citrus reticulata, Rutaceae), yellow oleander (Cascabela thevetia, syn. Thevetia peruviana, Apocynaceae), and Mikania batatifolia (Asteraceae). After he identified and characterized two flavonolignans from milk thistle (Silybum marianum, Asteraceae) seed, he chose to name them silychristin and silydianin after his daughter Christine and secretary Diane. This, according to his colleagues, was emblematic of Wagner’s sense of humor.
In addition to his professorship at LMU, Wagner headed the university’s Institute of Pharmaceutical Biology for more than 25 years. He accepted a distinguished visiting professorship at the Ohio State University from 1970 to 1971 and served as the dean of the Faculty of Chemistry and Pharmacy at LMU from 1981 to 1983. He taught at LMU until his retirement in 1998 and continued to serve as director of the Institute of Pharmaceutical Biology until 1999. Even after his retirement, he remained active with the university as an advisor and consultant. During his time at LMU, Wagner mentored many doctoral students and educated a generation of natural products scientists.
Ikhlas Khan, PhD, director of the National Center for Natural Products Research and Distinguished Professor of Pharmacognosy at the University of Mississippi, earned his doctorate under Wagner from 1984 to 1987. “Professor Wagner was a mentor, guardian, and outstanding professor,” Khan wrote (email, December 7, 2021). “He taught us the value of good research and educating others about the need for research. His legacy is alive: Five of his students are heading academic institutions, and many [are] leading the industry. We will remember him for his contributions to plant science for ages to come. He will be missed greatly.”
Wagner co-authored more than 900 scholarly articles and multiple books, many of which became foundational textbooks for pharmacognosy students. These include Plant Drug Analysis: A Thin Layer Chromatography Atlas, 1st and 2nd editions (Springer, 1984 and 1996), Immunomodulatory Agents from Plants (Springer, 1999), Pharmazeutische Biologie 2 (Wissenschaftliche Verlagsgesellschaft, 2007), Evidence and Rational Based Research on Chinese Drugs (Springer, 2013), and Chromatographic Fingerprint Analysis of Herbal Medicines volumes I-V (Springer).
In 1994, Wagner co-founded the journal Phytomedicine with Norman R. Farnsworth, PhD (1930–2011), a renowned pharmacognosist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, with the goal to focus on and stimulate interest in the field of phytopharmaceutical research and set international scientific standards for the safety and efficacy of phytomedicines. Starting in 2015, Phytomedicine has bestowed the annual Professor Hildebert Wagner Award to a doctoral student or postdoctoral researcher who is under 35 years old and the lead author of an article that is outstanding in its field. Wagner was also an editor or on the advisory board of multiple other journals including Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Journal of Natural Products, and Phytochemistry.
Wagner’s dedication to natural products research earned him many international accolades. He received honorary doctorates from the University of Debrecen in Debrecen, Hungary, in 1989; the University of Dijon (now the University of Burgundy) in Dijon, France, in 1997; and the University of Helsinki in Helsinki, Finland, in 1997. He also was named an honorary professor at Beijing University in 1990 and the National University of Saint Augustine in Arequipa, Peru, in 1992.
He was an honorary member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the American Society of Pharmacognosy. In 2002, the Society for Medicinal Plant and Natural Product Research (GA) awarded him the Egon-Stahl-Award in Gold, the organization’s highest scientific honor, “in recognition of his extraordinary lifetime work in the area of pharmaceutical biology in its whole range, in particular by his many and trend setting scientific contributions in the field of medicinal plant research.”1 The American Botanical Council awarded Wagner the 2007 Norman R. Farnsworth Excellence in Botanical Research Award.
Harry H.S. Fong, PhD, professor emeritus of pharmacognosy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was a friend and collaborator of Wagner and recalled his open, welcoming nature. “We crossed paths many times,” Fong wrote (email to I. Khan, November 21, 2021). “I remember fondly being at his home … with Norm [Farnsworth] and [Professor Geoffrey A. Cordell, PhD]…. He may not have been one of my official preceptors, [but] I respected him as one. I especially appreciate his having treated me as a colleague on equal footing, as exemplified by his consulting/enlisting my help in his quest to have a pharmacognosist Nobel laureate installed, just a couple of years before it happened! Yes, Bert was a giant in pharmacognosy. They don’t make people like him … anymore.”
Hildebert Wagner is survived by his wife Ursula, children Christine (Eugen) Wagner, Thomas (Angelika) Wagner, and Michael (Gabi) Wagner, and grandchildren.
Silybum marianum. ©2021 Steven Foster
- Egon Stahl Award in Gold. Society for Medicinal Plant and Natural Product Research website. Available at: https://ga-online.org/about-ga/awards/egon-stahl-award-in-gold/. Accessed December 3, 2021.