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Richard Evans Schultes 1915-2001

The Father of Ethnobotany, Richard Evans Schultes, died on April 10, 2001, in Boston. He was 86. Widely considered the preeminent authority on hallucinogenic and medicinal plants, Schultes was a Harvard University professor who inspired a generation of botanists, teaching by personal example. His classroom brought the Amazon to his students with artifacts collected during his decades in the rainforests. Further, he is considered one of the founders of the international conservation movement.

More than 120 species bear his name, as does a 2.2 million-acre tract of protected rainforest in Colombia. During the course of his career, he documented the use of more than 2,000 medicinal plants used by Indians of a dozen tribes, and collected more than 24,000 plant specimens. Often consulting local shamans about the properties of the plants he collected, Dr. Schultes won their respect and trust by offering his own. But "time is running out," he warned in a 1994 article in The Sciences. "The Indians’ botanical knowledge is disappearing even faster than the plants themselves." In the introduction to his Where The Gods Reign (1988), he wrote, "A number of years ago, I heard a high ranking South American diplomat describe the Amazon as a ‘desert of trees that had to be cleared for the benefit of mankind.’ Yet, investigations by Colombian and foreign botanists have recognized an unbelievably rich flora, and the detailed knowledge of it possessed by its native inhabitants. Advancing acculturation and civilizations everywhere spell the doom of extinction of this knowledge faster even than the extinction of species themselves as a result of forest devastation."

Excerpts from his 1992 speech to Biosphere 2 "The importance of ethnobotany in environmental conservation" may be found online at

The son of a Boston plumbing engineer, his fascination with the rainforest began when he was a bedridden 5-year-old, and his parents read excerpts from Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and the Andes (1908). This travel diary of 19th century British naturalist Richard Spruce inspired the boy to follow in his footsteps, as he did indeed, quite literally on some of his travels.

Attending Harvard on a full scholarship, Schultes wrote an undergraduate paper on the mind-altering properties of peyote (Lophophora williamsii). His doctoral thesis, also at Harvard, was on the plants used by the Indians of Oaxaca, Mexico. Dr. Schultes unintentionally contributed to the psychedelic era of the 1960s with his ethnobotanical discoveries of hallucinogenic plants; he loathed the recreational use of these sacred plants.

In 1941, Dr. Schultes traveled to an area Spruce had studied in the Colombian Amazon and where he would spend most of his years of field research, first concentrating on plants that produced curare, an arrow poison also used as a muscle-relaxant during major surgery. He identified more than 70 plant species from which the Indians extracted curare.

At the outbreak of World War II, the U.S. government assigned him botanical research into natural rubber; to find alternative sources to the Japanese-occupied Malayan plantations that produced most of the world’s rubber supplies. Soon the leading expert, Schultes collected more than 3,500 specimens of the genus Hevea, which produces the latex from which rubber is made. Throughout the 1940s and until the early 1950s, Dr. Schultes lived almost continuously in the South American rainforests, visiting the U.S. only briefly.

In 1953, he returned to the U.S. and his beloved Harvard University, where he directed the botanical museum and taught until retirement in 1985. He published 10 books, more than 450 scientific articles, and was active in the scientific journals Economic Botany, Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Journal of Latin American Folklore, Social Pharmacology, among others.

His numerous awards include the Gold Medal of the World Wildlife Fund, the 1987 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement (notice of which is located at the website <>), the Lindbergh Award, the Harvard Medal, and the Gold Medal of the Linnean Society. The Schultes Award was established in his honor by The Healing Forest Conservancy, a foundation of Shaman Pharmaceuticals, Inc., to honor a scientist, practitioner, or organization that has made an outstanding contribution to ethnobotany or to indigenous peoples issues related to ethnobotany.

In 1959, he married Dorothy Crawford McNeil, an opera soprano who performed in Europe and the U.S. His wife and their three children, Richard Evans Schultes II, who works with United Parcel Service; Alexandra Ames Schultes Wilson, a physician; and her twin, Neil Parker Schultes, a molecular geneticist, survive him.

A memorial service was held April 29 at King’s Chapel, Boston, followed by a reception hosted by the Schultes family. Several mourners offered speeches recalling their experiences with Dr. Schultes.

—    Karen Robin, ABC

[Kandell, J. Richard E. Schultes, 86, dies; trailblazing authority on hallucinogenic plants. New York Times. 2001, April 13:C11 (available on line at <>,<> or <>, among other sites.)

Richard Schultes, medicinal plant expert, dead at 86. Harvard Gazette. <>

Giradet H. Richard Schultes. The Guardian. 2001 April 26. <,3604,478503,00.html>

Richard Schultes: Botanist, explorer and expert on hallucinogenic plants. The Daily Telegraph. 2001 April 16. <>

Richard Evans Schultes: The Father of Ethnobotany 1915-2001 <>]

Davis W. One River: Explorations and discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest. New York: Simon & Schuster; 1996. Excerpted in HerbalGram 1996;38:32-9, 63.]