Pharmacognosy lost a prodigious scientist on December 14, 2020, with the death of Professor Mahabir Prashad Gupta, PhD, 78, due to lung complications from COVID-19. He was a world-renowned pharmacognosist, celebrated for his pioneering research on ethnobotany, bioprospection, natural products chemistry, and drug discovery from tropical plants that represent the biodiversity of Latin America, particularly Panama.
Born in Gajsinghpur, Rajasthan, India, on October 3, 1942, Gupta received a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy from the University of Rajasthan in 1963 and a master’s degree in pharmacy from Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, in 1965. After working in India for two years, he pursued his doctoral studies at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington. Immediately after receiving his PhD in 1971, he was awarded an Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellowship, which allowed him to travel to the University of Munich to work with Professor Hildebert Wagner, PhD, on drug discovery from plants. In 1972, he joined the College of Pharmacy of the University of Panama, where he stayed until his death, dedicating his professional life to the advancement of pharmacognosy research in Panama, the Caribbean, and Latin America in general.
He is well known for his book Plantas Medicinales Iberoamericanas (Ibero-American Medicinal Plants; Convenio Andrés Bello, 2008), which captures his remarkable ability of fostering international cooperation in natural product drug discovery in Latin America, Spain, and Portugal.1 He published 266 research articles and more than a dozen books. He was a respected teacher of pharmacognosy at the University of Panama. Among his many accomplishments, he became the dean of the School of Pharmacy, and he founded and, for many years, led the Center for Pharmacognostic Research on Panamanian Flora, which is widely known as CIFLORPAN, a well-known research center at the university and a cradle of a new generation of researchers.
He was the executive director of the INTERCIENCIA Association for the promotion of science in the Americas and was a fellow of The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) and a TWAS council member for Latin America and the Caribbean. He was a recipient of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Award for International Scientific Cooperation in 2003. Among other recognitions, Gupta received honorary doctorates from the National University of the Peruvian Amazon (UNAP), Peru, in 2005 and the University of the Valley of Itajaí (UNIVALI), Brazil, in 2014. He also advised the Organization of American States and the Pan American Health Organization on herbal medicines.
By securing cooperative grants, Gupta helped enable the training of more than 1,600 Latin American scientists in natural products drug discovery, according to AAAS.2 He participated in quality-control projects that led to greater demand for improved standards for drug products in Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Panama. Starting in 1985, his leadership in the Ibero-American Programme on Science and Technology for Development (CYTED) helped lead to scientific cooperation among 19 Latin American countries, Spain, and Portugal. This program involved participation of more than 1,300 scientists at more than 250 research centers. Thousands of plant extracts from these countries were screened for the potential treatment of depression, HIV/AIDS, and malaria. That research produced more than 300 papers and at least 40 doctoral degrees.
The quality of Gupta’s mentorship is exemplified by the first author of this obituary (AIC), a former pharmacy student at the University of Panama. She had the great privilege to have Professor Gupta as her undergraduate research advisor. As a mentor, Gupta encouraged her to apply for the prestigious Fulbright Fellowship to pursue a master’s degree in pharmacognosy at the College of Pharmacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) under the second author’s (DDS’) mentorship. This led to a close collaboration between Gupta and members of UIC on projects to demonstrate the pharmaceutical potential of plants in a tropical forest of Panama.3 After obtaining her doctorate from Gupta’s friend and longtime collaborator Kurt Hostettmann, PhD, at the University of Lausanne in Lausanne, Switzerland, she joined CIFLORPAN and worked under the guidance of Gupta for several years. Gupta’s mentorship positively impacted her career, and she will always be grateful for his help and support.
Although the second author’s interactions with Gupta were more limited, these collaborations were memorable and rewarding. DDS remembers Gupta’s visits to UIC in the 1980s and 1990s and contributed to several papers that Gupta and his colleagues submitted for publication in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology in the 1990s, while DDS was an editor of this journal. Gupta published 13 articles in the journal during DDS’ term as editor. Other memorable interactions include a meeting of the Program of Applied Research to Popular Medicine in the Caribbean (TRAMIL) in Antigua-Barbuda in 1991 and running a course on international phytopharmacology at the Institute of Natural Sciences at the Universidad Central del Ecuador in Quito, Ecuador, in 1994. In every case, Gupta demonstrated a deep knowledge of the study of medicinal plants, especially medicinal plants of Panama. He was very friendly, courteous, and a real gentleman.
Members of the pharmacognosy community on five continents fondly recall his pleasant demeanor, deep knowledge of Panamanian flora, and his ability to foster training of scientists in Latin America and international collaboration in natural drug discovery among this region and South America, the United States, Europe, and Asia.
Both authors of this obituary are grateful to have had the opportunity to interact and work with such an outstanding mentor, boss, friend, and human being. His loss is deeply felt. He is survived by his wife, Olga Gupta, and their three children, Rajesh, Sanjay, and Purni.
Angela I. Calderón, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Drug Discovery and Development, Harrison School of Pharmacy, Auburn University. She specializes in natural drug products research, specifically applications of mass spectrometry to natural products drug discovery, and quality and safety assessment of botanical dietary supplements.
Djaja Doel Soejarto, PhD, is professor emeritus in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, College of Pharmacy, University of Illinois at Chicago, and an adjunct curator (botany) at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
- Gupta MP. Plantas Medicinales Iberoamericanas. Bogotá, Colombia: Convenio Andrés Bello; 2008.
- 2003 Award for International Scientific Cooperation Recipient. American Association for the Advancement of Science website. Available at: www.aaas.org/awards/international-scientific-cooperation/2003-recipient. Accessed August 11, 2021.
- Calderón AI, Angerhofer CK, Pezzuto JM, et al. Forest plot as a tool to demonstrate the pharmaceutical potential of plants in a tropical forest of Panama. Economic Botany. 2008;54:278-294.