Paul Lee, Catalyst of American Herbal Movement, Dies at 91
Philosopher and activist coined the term ‘Herbal Renaissance’ for the explosion in interest in herbal medicine in the late 1970s
By Hannah Bauman
Philosopher, educator, activist, and US herbal community pioneer Paul Lee, PhD, died in Santa Cruz, California, on October 20, 2022, at age 91. As the executive director of the now-defunct Herb Trade Association (HTA) in its first years and a founding member of the American Herbalists Guild (AHG), Lee was instrumental in organizing the burgeoning herb industry in the United States in the 1970s.
Lee was born in La Veta, Colorado, on September 20, 1931. His father, a medical doctor, moved the family to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, early in Lee’s life, and he graduated from Custer High School in Milwaukee in 1949. He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, and began studying at Luther Theological Seminary (now Luther Seminary) in Saint Paul, Minnesota. However, dissatisfied with his education at Luther, he studied in the summer of 1954 at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he was introduced to the work of influential Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, PhD (1886–1965). Lee transferred to the University of Minnesota, where he earned a master’s degree in philosophy and political science in 1955. Finally, he completed his education at Harvard Divinity School, earning a Bachelor of Sacred Theology in 1956 and a PhD in psychology in 1963 under the direction of renowned developmental psychologist Erik Erikson (1902–1994). While attending Harvard, Lee became a teaching assistant to Tillich, who was by then a professor there.
Lee taught first at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and later at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UC Santa Cruz). While at MIT, he met psychedelic advocate and Harvard professor Timothy Leary, PhD (1920–1996), who named Lee a founding editor of the Psychedelic Review along with other psychedelic researchers and pioneers Richard Alpert, PhD (later known as Ram Dass [1931–2019]), Rolf von Eckartsberg, PhD (1932–1993), and Ralph Metzner, PhD (1936–2019). Lee also participated in the 1962 “Marsh Chapel Experiment” coordinated by graduate student Walter N. Pahnke, MD, PhD (1931–1971), as part of Pahnke’s doctoral thesis. The experiment, also called the “Good Friday Experiment,” was the first known controlled, double-blinded study that investigated the effects of psilocybin — a psychedelic compound in “magic mushrooms” (fungi in the genus Psilocybe [Hymenogastraceae], among others) — on subjects who were religious.
After three years of teaching humanities, philosophy, and religion at MIT, Lee transferred to UC Santa Cruz, where he taught courses in philosophy, religious studies, and the history of consciousness. He was instrumental, along with organic farming pioneer and master gardener Alan Chadwick, in founding the university’s Chadwick Garden in 1967. The three-acre garden, which adhered to Chadwick’s French intensive and biodynamic vision, included numerous native California plants and more than 120 varieties of apples (Malus spp., Rosaceae). The garden was a harbinger of California’s growing “California cuisine” movement, as well as the organic movement in the United States, and remains part of the UC Santa Cruz campus. Lee was the faculty director of the Chadwick Garden until 1972.
Lee taught at UC Santa Cruz for seven years but, after he was denied tenure, left the university in 1973. Lee’s friend, noted historian and author Page Smith, PhD (1917–1995), resigned from UC Santa Cruz in protest. Smith said later that he suspected Lee was controversial and unpopular among the university’s faculty due to his background in psychedelic experimentation and lack of academic publications, a phenomenon he dubbed “publish or perish” and heavily critiqued after his resignation.1,2
ABC Founder and Executive Director Mark Blumenthal, who knew Lee well in the late 1970s and early 1980s, recalled Lee’s derisive recounting of his denial of tenure, referring to one of the tenure committee members who asked him, “Paul, what does gardening have to do with philosophy?” To Lee, that summed up the limited mindsets of those faculty. Lee would often recount, noted Blumenthal, that some of the earliest universities of Europe, such as the University of Padua in Italy (founded in 1222), were initially built around herb gardens (email, December 12, 2022).
Following his departure from UC Santa Cruz, Lee became involved in the early US herb industry. Lee helped found the HTA and became its first executive director. In 1977 and 1978, he organized the first and second HTA herb symposia at the UC Santa Cruz campus. Participants from all areas of the herb trade attended these meetings, including herb experts, herb purveyors, and academic scientists. Lee ran the HTA from the office located in his home’s converted garage until 1979, at which point the HTA was moved to Austin, Texas, after Blumenthal was elected president and the HTA board decided to hire a professional society management firm.
Paul Lee was a seminal force for the herb industry and herb movement in the United States in the late 1970s. His vision included creating strong connections among the herbalists and herb business entrepreneurs in the nascent herb industry with leading botanical medicine scholars in academia, including experts in the sciences of ethnobotany and pharmacognosy at various US universities. He did this by organizing the first two HTA symposia.
Paul had a dramatic and lasting positive influence on my professional career in the herb movement. It was through Paul that I met USDA [US Department of Agriculture] economic botanist Jim Duke, research pharmacognosy professor Norman Farnsworth, and pharmacognosy educator and textbook author Varro Tyler, three revered experts who were instrumental in helping me establish the nonprofit American Botanical Council in 1988. It was also through Paul that we herbalists and herb traders met other leading academic experts, including ethnobotany professors and textbook authors Walter Lewis, and his wife Memory Elvin-Lewis, pharmacognosy professors Ara Der Marderosian and E. John Staba, and a host of other academic experts. I have had the opportunity to maintain lifelong friendships with these remarkable people, and my life has been all the richer for it, with profound gratitude to Paul.
“And,” Blumenthal concluded, “it was through Paul that I met the men who would not only become two of my closest professional colleagues and collaborators, but also close personal friends for over 40 years: herbalist Ed Smith, whom I met at one of the symposia, and the late Steven Foster, whom I met in Paul’s office in Santa Cruz in 1978.”
Lee then founded and ran the Platonic Academy School of Herbal Studies, inspired by the academy founded by the classical Greek philosopher Plato (ca 427–347 BCE) in ca 387 BCE. Local Santa Cruz herbalists Christopher Hobbs, PhD, and Michael Tierra studied with and taught alongside Lee in those early years of the Platonic Academy. During this time and for several decades after, Lee wrote and lectured extensively on a wide range of topics related to the uses of medicinal plants, the history of medicine and society, and the emerging role of herbs in self-care and modern culture.
Hobbs first met Lee in 1982, when he joined the faculty of the Platonic Academy. He taught at the academy for three years. Hobbs wrote:
I had a chance to know Paul quite well during those three years. I was often in his office and home discussing philosophy, and especially his favorite topic, vitalism vs. reductionism. Reductionism, in his mind, was analogous to making synthetic drugs, and even highly concentrated extracts from plants, disrupting their original natural balance of chemical components. During my years with him, he often railed against the scientific basis of synthetic pharmacy and the creation of drugs to treat illness.
Along with the other teachers, [including] Michael Tierra, Subhuti Dharmananda, Grace Maroquin, and guest teachers, we detailed and promoted the ideas and practice of both Western herbalism and traditional Chinese medicine for the three years of the grant. After the grant ran out, Michael and I continued classes for another eight years in Santa Cruz, calling the school The American School of Herbalism.
[Lee] preferred to promote organic food and herbs in healing diets and medicines, emphasizing the connection to organic and bio-dynamic gardening and farming for personal and planetary health. He really was ahead of his time in 1982. His vision, activism, and contribution to the entire herbal movement in the late 1960s and through the early 1980s is understated…. I often heard him state that he wanted to restore the “lost botanical basis of health care undermined by modern science.” He particularly emphasized that the immune system was the key to real health care, based on his idea that because of our evolutionary past and dependence on plants for our healthcare we had an “herb code in the immune memory of DNA.”
Paul was always the visionary and not a “nuts-and-bolts” person in any sense of the phrase. These frequent discussions with Paul greatly inspired me and helped set me on a path of teaching, writing, and consulting that incorporated many of his ideas…. Another characteristic of Paul was his ability to blend ancient Greek references and knowledge with holistic health practice. He came up with the idea that the herb Thymus vulgaris (thyme) was a potent immune activator, and that regular use could enhance one’s health, and further “the courage to be.” So, he associated the immune system with our individual human “beingness,” the ancient herb thyme being the key to preserve our courage as a unique individual. He combined this idea with the “thymus thump” which he would often demonstrate by thumping his chest repeatedly to activate the thymus gland. His idea being that this practice could increase our immune potency, our immune system being the most elemental basis of who we are as individuals.
Over the years, I learned of and witnessed the major contributions Paul made to herbalism, as well as being a social activist, a driving force for creating and preserving the Santa Cruz greenbelt, helping to start the first food coop in Santa Cruz, Democratic Management Services, the Homeless Garden Project, and many other progressive civic projects. He was able to successfully apply for grants and was an enthusiastic and developmental force for initiating many lasting projects in the area that sometimes went out in the world touching many…. Paul was frequently recruiting young people with energy and spirit to accomplish things, and I was one of them. From the very first time I met him, Paul’s enthusiasm, charisma, and wide knowledge of philosophy and the ancients forever altered the course of my life’s work with humor and sometimes more than a touch of irony. His vision that healing and capitalism were going in the wrong direction focusing on synthetics and profits rather than natural medicines that started in gardens and farms is a central theme in my work today. I am forever grateful to him and honor him as one of my greatest inspirations (email, December 12, 2022).
Fred Hathaway of Plantamex, who has been involved in buying and selling herbs since 1977 and whose family has been involved in the US herb market since 1938, wrote:
Paul Lee had already manifested within the herbal group when I entered in early ‘77, so I didn’t know his origin, only his effect. When we were just dealing with a sense of who we were as small companies and individuals, he talked like we were members of a trade association — and we became one. We had the attention of a professor engaged with activism, so we were inclined to step up. The energy Paul called forth in that HTA group now empowers industry-leading organizations and internationally recognized publications (email, October 30, 2022).
Lee continued to promote the collaboration of herbalists around the United States and was a founding member of AHG in 1989. He also advocated for cross-cultural exchange with the Chinese herb market. He was invited to tour herbal centers in China as a guest of the government in 1982, which is notable since China had been closed to Western cultural, business, and political influences until the 1970s, and eventually led tours himself as part of the People to People organization in 1989.
Janice Anne Hall, president of the Natural Network International, a natural products industry marketing consulting firm, is a veteran of the natural products industry who started her career by working with Paul Lee when he was the executive director of the HTA. She wrote: “The irreverent Harvard philosopher turned herbalist and academic systems buster … was my first mentor and a dearly beloved friend, and as such, changed the course of my life” (email, November 7, 2022). Hall continued:
[As] a young woman from New Jersey living in Santa Cruz, California, I was looking for my calling. My shift began when I took his Platonic Academy course on the history and philosophy of herbal medicine. His course threaded [the history of botanicals] together, arching from the Greek mythologies to Wöhler's [artificial] synthesis of urea in 1828. Paul called the latter the key to the pivot from “back-to-the-roots” vitalist to physicalist and synthetic medicines. A gifted storyteller, he breathed life into every aspect [of his activities].
Why the Platonic Academy? Paul was a lover of Plato, who taught in his garden, and the center of his garden was an herb garden. Paul, too, had an herb garden, … a huge and magnificent one in his backyard. After taking his course, I went to work for him helping to expand his course into a correspondence course. We would take breaks in that garden, and he would share stories of his work with Paul Tillich and Richard Alpert [Ram Dass] and Timothy Leary's International Federation for Internal Freedom. He would ruminate about how Plato believed the cosmos has a soul because it is a living, breathing being. Using ancient myth and lore, Paul threaded the interrelationship and interdependence of nature with science, philosophy, culture, and art. This passion was the impetus for [the Chadwick Garden] — the first organic garden at a university in the United States…. These gatherings [at the HTA symposia] were the catalyst for academics, researchers, and herbalists … to connect with the emerging botanical businesses, planting seeds for a new industry.
Subhuti Dharmananda, PhD, founder and director of the Institute for Traditional Medicine (ITM) in Portland, Oregon, met Lee while working for an herb business in Santa Cruz. Dharmananda wrote:
Dr. Paul Lee was a philosopher; he named the organization to represent his personal work the Platonic Academy and frequently discussed the philosophy of Paul Tillich with special reference to Tillich’s book The Courage to Be (1952)…. Plato and Tillich held a similar concept of the universe having underlying fundamental ideas which are manifest in the world as a multiple experiential symbols.
Herbs, particularly medicinal herbs, served for Lee as the symbol par excellence for humans’ connection to nature, a connection that was being whittled away by rapid technological development that was and still is allowing people to ignore an essential part of their being. Instead of becoming involved in promoting the individual therapeutic properties of herbs, as did most who considered themselves herbalists, Paul served as a nexus for the evolving field of herbal medicine that was in its infancy, coming as a reaction to the high-tech clinical approach of modern medicine.
I can assert with confidence that … my work in this field would have been quite [different without] Paul’s influence…. [He helped me view medicinal plants] as a key symbol for reconnecting humans with nature (email, November 4, 2022).
Herbalist Roy Upton, president of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, is a resident of the Santa Cruz area and knew Lee for many years. He wrote:
When I arrived in Santa Cruz in 1985, I was so excited to be exposed to many of the herbal legends who resided here, which at the time included Michael Tierra, Christopher Hobbs, Subhuti Dharmananda, and many others. One larger-than-life figure in the Santa Cruz herbal world whom I previously did not know was Dr. Paul Lee, a consummate storyteller and philosopher who was somewhat of a herald for select herbal philosophy…. Paul could imagine or intuit a relationship and then build a reality, or at least a really good story, around it. One of his favorites at the time was what he considered an almost divine relationship between the herb thyme [Thymus vulgaris, Lamiaceae] and the thymus gland, apparently based on an etymological relationship between the herb and the gland, both so named after the ancient Greek thymós, defined by Paul’s mentor Paul Tillich, as the “courage to be, vital self-affirmation, and the unreflective striving for what is noble.”
One interesting and under-recognized aspect of Paul’s life was his founding of his own university. [Following the resignation of Lee and Smith from UC Santa Cruz], in 1974, together with professor of art history Mary Holmes, the trio founded “Penny University,” which convened once weekly at Caffe Pergolesi in the courtyard behind Bookshop Santa Cruz. While most nights consisted of the three openly discussing all matters of societal philosophy or local politics to whomever would listen, some nights were especially remarkable. On two of the nights I attended, we listened intently to the wife of a German SS officer who, with other SS colleagues, [had planned] on assassinating Adolf Hitler, recognizing [his] madness. However, they felt that doing so would make him a martyr with potentially worse consequences and so did not follow through with their plans. Another was a survivor of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and her sharing vivid memories of that moment and the aftermath. Through the decades, countless numbers of such incredible moments were shared freely to the public lasting at least until a few short years ago…. Such was Paul Lee’s tenacity, maintaining his active participation with Penny University and the Homeless Garden Project up until the last few months of his life, tenures lasting 48 and 32 years, respectively!
A Google search for thyme raises the question “Is thyme good for the thymus gland?” followed by the following snippet: “Studies by Dr. Paul Lee, a professor at UC Santa Cruz, found that thyme has a major effect on strengthening the thymus gland, which enhances the immune system. His study showed thyme's positive effect on the glandular system as a whole.” I listened to Paul’s eloquent [monologue] of the subject of thyme and thymus many times, though never saw any studies. A TEDx of Paul discussing [the thymus-thyme connection] is available for viewing3 and provides a snapshot of who Paul Lee was as a storyteller: a weaver of history, modernity, fact, fancy, and extrapolations, all rooted in discussions regarding an individual’s and community’s pursuit of self, soul, nobility, and courage, laced with a smattering of thyme (email, November 29, 2022).
Throughout his life, Lee also was active in many environmental and philanthropic initiatives in Santa Cruz, including the maintenance of green spaces and an electric vehicle project. He cofounded the William James Association, a prison outreach nonprofit, with Huston Smith, and they served as co-chairs from 1973 to 1996. He also founded the nonprofit University Services Agency, later renamed the United Services Agency, with Reverend Herb Schmidt, which grew to include more than 20 other organizations, including the first Whole Earth Restaurant (the natural food restaurant located on the campus of UC Santa Cruz). He was involved in outreach to the homeless population of California, and he promoted the construction of multiple shelters in the Santa Cruz area and served as the chair of the Citizen’s Committee for the Homeless from 1985 to 1997. He also co-founded the Homeless Garden Project in 1989 to help people gain work skills and history to transition out of homelessness. At the time of his death, he was the chair of the board for the nonprofit public policy center Romero Institute and had previously served on the board of the Dharma Sangha Crestone Mountain Zen Center in Colorado.
In a tribute to Lee that focused on his extraordinary work in the greater Santa Cruz and UC Santa Cruz community, Lookout Santa Cruz writer Wallace Baine referred to Lee as the “Walt Whitman of Santa Cruz.”4 In his personal life, Lee collected antique books, especially herbals from around the world. He also enjoyed gardening and sailing. Paul Lee is survived by Charlene Lee, his wife of 66 years; daughter Jessica (Aaron) Zajac; and three grandchildren.
Paul Lee in 1970, teaching at UC Santa Cruz
Thymus vulgaris. ©2022 Steven Foster Group
- Smith P, Jarrell R, Regional History Project, UCSC Library. Page Smith: Founding Cowell College and UCSC, 1964–1973. Santa Cruz, CA: University of California – Santa Cruz; 1996.
- Smith P. Killing the Spirit: Higher Education in America. New York, NY: Viking Books; 1990.
- The Greeks Had a Word for It: Thymos! Paul Lee at TEDxSantaCruz [video]. YouTube.com. May 22, 2014. Available at: https://youtu.be/BFK9laBVa54. Accessed December 12, 2022.
- Baine W. Santa Cruz’s Walt Whitman: Paul Lee’s legacy in Santa Cruz is immense, on campus and in town. Lookout Santa Nov. 13, 2022. Available at: https://lookout.co/santacruz/wallace-baine/the-here-now/story/2022-11-13/santa-cruzs-walt-whitman-paul-lees-legacy-in-santa-cruz-is-immense-on-campus-and-in-town. Accessed December 12, 2022.