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Rudolf Hänsel: 1920 – 2018

Editor’s note: A previous version of this obituary appeared in the June 2018 edition of Planta Medica, the journal of the Society for Medicinal Plant and Natural Product Research (GA). Additional information on Hänsel’s accomplishments has been added by HerbalGram editorial staff.

Rudolf Hänsel, Dr. rer. nat., Professor Emeritus of Pharmacognosy (1956-1987) at the Free University of Berlin, died on June 14, 2018. He was born in Zinnwald, Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic), in 1920 and studied pharmacy at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. After having obtained a license to work as pharmacist in 1947, he completed his doctoral dissertation in 1950, followed by his habilitation* in 1955, also at Ludwig Maximilian University. In 1956, he was appointed as professor of pharmacognosy at the Institute of Pharmacognosy at the Free University. Until his retirement in 1987, he was director of the institute and a very successful university teacher and researcher who was well-known in Europe. The GA granted him an honorary membership in 2003.

Hänsel’s scientific work was characterized by natural product research in the field of European and other medicinal plants (e.g., kava [Piper methysticum, Piperaceae]). His extensive scientific work started with chemical isolation, structural characterization, and biological testing and continued to elaborate analytical procedures that were published in monographs of pharmacopeias. German-speaking students of pharmacy likely know the famous textbook, originally titled Lehrbuch der Allgemeinen Pharmakognosie (Textbook of General Pharmacognosy), which he co-authored with Ernst Steinegger in 1963. Hänsel oversaw nine editions of this textbook until 2010, when he worked together with Otto Sticher, also an honorary GA member. It was rather spectacular that an author was able to edit a textbook with excellent quality and updated content over such a long time period. Hänsel and Sticher also are mentioned in the current 10th edition from 2015. Readers of Hagers Handbuch der Pharmazeutischen Praxis (Hager’s Handbook for Pharmaceutical Practice) know the name Rudolf Hänsel because of his long editorial stewardship of this lexical reference work. He was also the co-author of the textbook Rational Phytotherapy: A Physician’s Guide to Herbal Medicine, with his colleague professor Volker Schulz, the fourth edition of which was translated into English and revised by Varro E. Tyler, PhD. After Tyler’s death, the fifth edition was revised by Mark Blumenthal.

Stefan Gafner, PhD, chief science officer of the American Botanical Council, commented: “During my undergraduate years, Professor Hänsel was known to every pharmacy student since his Lehrbuch der Pharmakognosie und Phytopharmazie [Textbook of Pharmacognosy and Phytopharmacy] — which was the title of the fourth edition of this textbook (although among students it was better known as the Steinegger-Hänsel in reference to the two authors’ names) — was the basis of our education in phytochemistry. It has always been among my favorite textbooks on pharmacognosy, and one that I hope will eventually be translated into other languages to make its content available beyond the German-speaking population.”

After Hänsel’s 80th birthday, he was honored with the Aulus Cornelius Celsus Medal by the German Central Association of Physicians for Natural Remedies in 2001 and the honorary membership of the German Pharmaceutical Society/National Group Bavaria.

Due to his scientific work and his textbooks, Hänsel will always be remembered by researchers active in natural products chemistry and pharmacognosy.

—Prof. Dr. Matthias F. Melzig
Freie Universität
Berlin Berlin, Germany