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Youngken Herbarium Donated to ABC

The American Botanical Council is delighted to announce its acquisition of the Heber W. Youngken, Sr., Herbarium, thanks to a donation by the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (MCPHS) in Boston.

The herbarium was built by Youngken during his many years at MCPHS, and is believed to contain more than 14,000 sheets of medicinal, spice, dye, and allied plants.  Many of those sheets contain Youngken’s distinctive script, noting the specimen’s identity and details of its collection.

His herbarium had been untouched, in storage, for some 50 years, so the specimens “are in amazing condition,” says Michael Montagne, Ph.D., R.Ph., Professor of Social Pharmacy at MCPHS. “Certainly, it will reflect the interests of Youngken as he built up the collection, with some specimens dated as early as 1900. Some varieties may even be gone from the regions where they were collected as America has developed so much over the past century.”

In addition to the plants Youngken collected personally, many collectors had added to the collection over the years, sending specimens from around the world to be part of this great herbarium.

“I wish we had the room to set it up here again,” said June Riedlinger, R.Ph., Pharm.D., Director of the Center for Integrative Therapies in Pharmaceutical Care at MCPHS, “but I’m very happy that ABC wants it and will make a good home for it.  Knowing Youngken’s reputation, I am sure that any plants that were medicinally relevant are a part of this unique historical record of medicinal plant biodiversity.”

Youngken, considered by many the Father of Modern Pharmacognosy, was an internationally known authority on the taxonomic and morphologic aspects of pharmacognosy, the study of drugs from natural origins (usually plants).  Born in 1885 in Pennsylvania, he died in 1963 at the age of 77.  He joined the faculty of MCPHS (then known as the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy) in 1923 where he remained until his retirement in 1956 at the age of 70.  Even then, he continued to pursue his research at the college as Professor Emeritus of Pharmacognosy.  He wrote the definitive texts used by two generations of upcoming pharmacists and pharmacognosists, Textbook of Pharmaceutical Botany (1914), Laboratory Manual of Botany (1929), A Textbook of Pharmacognosy (1921), Laboratory Notes on Pharmacognosy (1927), and more than 100 research papers in his field.  He also served as botanical editor of the 21st through 25th editions of the United States Dispensatory, was a member of the National Formulary Revision Committee and served for 40 years as a member of the United States Pharmacopeia Revision Committee.  He was deeply involved in the American Pharmaceutical Association, receiving the Ebert Medal in 1925 and 1931, and was named Honorary President of the APhA.  Pharmaceutical manufacturers often sought his opinion on crude drugs, i.e., plant medicines, and issues of adulteration.  Youngken’s work with many other professional, governmental, and fraternal organizations concerned with botany and pharmacy shows the wide scope of his career.

“He knew his stuff like no one else,” recalls Ara DerMarderosian, Ph.D., Professor of Pharmacognosy and Medicinal Chemistry at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, College of Pharmacy, who studied under Youngken.  “In his lectures, he could repeat chapters from his books absolutely verbatim.  The students commonly referred to him as Mr. Magoo, after the cartoon character.  He was a little guy, with the glasses, always bumping into things and talking a lot.  Well, of course his eyesight began to fail as he got older after spending so much time over a microscope.  But he also had a great sense of humor and was a connoisseur of fine foods.  He was an intense, brilliant man.  It was very impressive to us young students to be under the world authority in his field.  We would give anything to be like him, and wondered if we ever could.  Of course, that meant publishing as many papers as he did, and doing as much research.  But he also showed us that your work could be fun, that you could enjoy something so very much and make a living at it too.”

Upon learning of ABC’s acquiring Youngken’s herbarium, which he also remembers working in and learning from, DerMarderosian donated his copies of Youngken’s research papers and other documents from his own collection to ABC.

Norman Farnsworth, Ph.D., Research Professor of Pharmacognosy at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and an ABC Trustee, was one of Youngken’s graduate assistants and remembers his mentor as a “gentle, nice guy, with a very subtle sense of humor.”

For example, Farnsworth recalls a Plant Science Seminar, the meeting of botanists that preceded the formation of the American Society of Pharmacognosy.  Youngken turned to the young Farnsworth during one of the famous Watermelon Party cookouts with a plant he’d just plucked from the ground.

“‘Farnsworth, what’s this plant?’ he asked.  There in front of everybody I had to say, ‘I don’t know, professor.’  And he came back, ‘Ho ho ho, that’s common ordinary crabgrass!’  He got a big kick out of that.

“He had a photographic memory, and never forgot anything he read or heard.  His office was a little hole in the wall, maybe 10 by 10, and just stacked with plant vouchers.

“I remember when they were importing rauwolfia [Rauvolfia serpentina or Indian snakeroot, the source of the hypertensive drug reserpine] into the country, Youngken was the only person they would go to in order to ensure that the plant material really was rauwolfia.”

Farnsworth considered accepting the Youngken herbarium, but instead took only the crude drug and powdered drug samples for UIC’s collection.  “That herbarium’s been up in the attic for years and years.  I’m glad it finally has someplace to go,” he said.

UIC’s Youngken collection of crude plant drugs and other materials will be formally dedicated later this year.

Alvin Segelman, Ph.D., F.L.S. (London), C.N.S., vice president of Corporate Health Science at Nature’s Sunshine Products, Inc., of Provo, Utah, had Youngken as his undergraduate advisor during his four years as MCP.  “His reputation preceded him.  I was in awe,” Segelman recalls.  “He always seemed to be in a world of his own, and in a way, he was.”

One day, Segelman recalls, Youngken burst into a Materia Medica lecture, ran up to the lectern and said he had a very important announcement to make.  “‘I’ve just made an amazing discovery, and you students must change your United States Pharmacopeia!’ he said.  The size of the starch grains of some plant was off by 2.5 microns, and he just had to get up and tell us of this important change!

“As a young man, I thought Professor Youngken was a peculiar guy, but I also thought he was a genius.  One day I asked him why his textbook Pharmacognosy had no references.  He took off his glasses,  smiled and said,  ‘There are none because I am the reference.’”

Still, Segelman remembers Youngken as a man of perseverance, expertise, and seeming modesty.  “It’s not being an egoist when you have the credentials to back it up.  You could give Professor Youngken a piece of plant material behind his back, and just by snapping it and the feel in his hand, he could tell you what it was.”

When Segelman found himself in the Amazon years later, he recalled Youngken’s texts describing where to look for various species.

Segelman, interviewed by phone in Venezuela for this article, offered to assist ABC in preserving and cataloging the Youngken herbarium.  He also offered his own small collection of about 200 or more vouchers to add to the Youngken herbarium.

Herbaria are a unique form of collecting and preserving plants.  More than a museum, they are essential teaching tools.  Since the 1530s, botanists have been drying plants and mounting them on paper with detailed notes on habitats and biological variation.  A herbarium will map plant distribution, note evolutionary trends and genetic variations, and document plant research.  Researchers, students, educators, physicians, and others use herbaria to identify plants.  At one time, when plants were the source of most medicines, herbaria were common; even drug manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies maintained their own herbaria to help ensure quality of their products.  The number of herbaria in the U.S. has diminished, resulting in a terrible loss of resource materials.  In 1974, about 1,100 American herbaria were still in existence.  Currently, the Index Herbarorium, Part I: The Herbaria of the World (eighth edition, 1990, NYBG Press), lists only 525 remaining in this country.  Some were consolidated into other collections; others were discarded.

“Herbaria are very useful for positive identification of plant species,” said Varro Tyler, Ph.D., Sc.D., Dean and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Pharmacognosy at Purdue University, and an ABC Trustee.  “Youngken’s concentration on drug species makes this herbarium very unique.  It would be like having Albert Einstein’s personal library, only in this case it’s Heber Youngken’s herbarium, a memento of that man in itself.

“Certainly, Dr. Youngken, Sr., was probably the most renowned pharmacognosist of the first half of the 20th century. He was simply looked on as The Authority in pharmacognosy,” Tyler said.

  When the opportunity to acquire the Youngken Herbarium came to ABC, the decision was easy.  ABC founder and executive director Mark Blumenthal said, “Youngken was a giant in the world of medicinal plant research in the U.S.  We simply could not let his unique collection of medicinal plant specimens disappear.  Plus, having a herbarium collection of medicinal and otherwise useful plants at our new herbal education center and library is completely consistent with ABC’s mission of education and research on medicinal plants.

“Now that we have obtained this irreplaceable treasure, the herbarium will become part of ABC’s botanical library.  Actually, it’s perfect for us,” continued Blumenthal.  “Not only are we building a major herbal library, but we now have actual specimens of rare medicinal plants.  However, we still need funding to complete this project.  We hope our supporters will take this opportunity to help us to maintain and expand this collection, as well as make it available to researchers and students.”

In addition to needing to complete the capital campaign to construct the new building to house the collection and ABC’s growing library, ABC is seeking a donor to dedicate this collection—to provide funding to display and maintain the Youngken Herbarium.  The naming opportunity will provide broad recognition to any individual, company, or foundation who wishes to sponsor making this distinctive collection available for research.

With the dawn of the Digital Age since the Youngken Herbarium went into storage, an adventure awaits the person who will rediscover the contents of the collection and create a database, while handling the very same botanical specimens that Youngken himself collected and preserved for the future.    Karen Robin   q

[Editor’s note: We appreciate the assistance of staff members from the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy, the Lloyd Library and Museum, the Sheppard Library at MCPHS, and of Prof. DerMarderosian, who provided historical resources for this article.]