Pharmacognosy researcher and professor Otto Sticher, PhD, died on March 11, 2022, at his home in Ebmatingen, Switzerland, at age 85. Over his career of more than 50 years, Sticher specialized in the isolation and structure elucidation of compounds from natural products, quality control of herbal drugs and phytopharmaceuticals, and ethnobotany. His laboratory also developed and refined analytical methods for natural products.
Sticher was born on October 8, 1936, in Hochdorf, Switzerland. He studied pharmacy at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich) and completed his doctorate in 1965 under Professor Hans Flück, PhD, with a thesis on the composition of Mentha spp. (Lamiaceae) essential oils. After managing a pharmacy for two years, Sticher completed a postdoctoral course of study under Professor Hans Schmid, PhD, at the Institute of Organic Chemistry at the University of Zurich. In 1970, he began teaching phytochemistry and pharmacognosy at ETH Zurich, where he became an associate professor in 1972 and a full professor of pharmacognosy and phytochemistry in the Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences in the Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences in 1979. In his early years at ETH Zurich, he was particularly interested in research on iridoids. He became a professor emeritus when he retired from ETH Zurich in 2002. He also taught biology students at the University of Zurich.
During his tenure at ETH Zurich, Sticher organized “pharmabotanical” excursions with his students around Switzerland, which created real-world connections between the plants in the environment and the information learned in lectures and encouraged his students to engage with ethnobotanical studies. He also promoted global cooperation among researchers by inviting scientists from countries around the world, including Egypt, Greece, Morocco, Papua New Guinea, and Turkey to collaborate, as well as by supporting and participating in ethnobotanical research trips to Mexico and Papua New Guinea. Sticher mentored more than 50 doctoral students and dozens of postdoctoral researchers.
Another major research focus for Sticher was qualitative analysis and the development of analytical techniques. In the late 1970s, his lab was among the first to use high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) for phytochemical analysis and later developed the “PRISMA” model for computer-aided HPLC mobile phase optimization. His research group used this technology to develop qualitative and quantitative HPLC methods for a broad range of natural products, including iridoids and other isoprenoids, phenolic substances such as flavonoids, lignans, phenylpropanoids, salicin derivatives, coumarins, anthranoids, and various alkaloids. He set numerous milestones in the quality control of herbal medicines, including what may be the first published HPLC-ultraviolet (HPLC-UV) analytical method to measure ginsenosides in species of ginseng (Panax spp., Araliaceae) and the establishment of a ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba, Ginkgoaceae) extract fingerprint, which included the separation of 33 ginkgo flavonoids.
According to Stefan Gafner, PhD, chief science officer of the American Botanical Council (ABC): “Professor Sticher’s pioneering work on ginkgo is not only an amazing piece of liquid chromatography, but also one of the first papers to consider evaluating the quality of an herbal extract not by a single marker compound, but by the entirety of its chemical composition or fingerprint” (email, April 11, 2022).
Sticher authored or co-authored almost 400 scientific articles throughout his career. He became the co-editor of several editions of the textbook Pharmakognosie−Phytopharmazie (Pharmacognosy−Phytopharmacy) starting with the sixth edition in 1999. The first edition was published in 1963 by Springer and is now up to its 10th edition, published in 2015.
Sticher held leadership positions in numerous natural products research organizations, particularly the Society for Medicinal Plant and Natural Product Research (GA). He was president of the GA from 1978 to 1984, was an honorary member, and received the organization’s highest honor, the Egon-Stahl-Award in Gold, in 2011. The organization also released a special edition of its journal,Planta Medica, in 2021 in recognition of Sticher’s 85th birthday. He was a co-editor and editorial advisory board member of Planta Medica as well. He also worked closely with the American Society of Pharmacognosy (ASP), of which he was an honorary member and fellow, board member of the ASP Foundation, and editorial advisory board member of the Journal of Natural Productspublished by ASP and the American Chemical Society. In 2014, a special issue of the Journal of Natural Products was published in his honor.
In addition to the GA and ASP, Sticher served on pharmacopeial committees in Switzerland and throughout Europe and the United States. He was a member of the Federal and European Pharmacopoeia Commission and president of the Swiss Society of Pharmaceutical Sciences. In 2002, he received an honorary degree from the University of London School of Pharmacy. ABC awarded Sticher the 2018 ABC Norman R. Farnsworth Excellence in Botanical Research Award in recognition of his lifetime of work and extraordinary contributions to the development of analytical methods for quality control and to the knowledge of the chemistry and medicinal properties of many extracts and isolates from plants, bacteria, and marine organisms.
Gafner noted: “Professor Sticher was a member of my doctoral thesis jury. During my thesis defense, I remember his challenging questions but also his attentive listening skills. After I finished my PhD, he offered me a position as a research assistant at ETH Zurich, but at the same time indicated that I’d be better off with a post-doc abroad, advice that eventually landed me at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I have met him on many occasions over the years, and he will always remain one of my favorite scientists due to his genuine interest in my work and his humble, kind, and honest personality.”
Otto Sticher is predeceased by his son Beat and survived by his wife Miriam, who frequently traveled with him to medicinal plant conferences throughout the world; daughters Bettina and Marianne; stepdaughter Esther; and one grandchild.