Spotlight on James A. Duke, the Barefoot Doctor
James A. Duke, PhD, is one of the 3 founding members of the American Botanical Council (ABC) Board of Trustees. He is a well-known scientist, educator, storyteller, musician, and one of the most prolific writers on herbal medicine. With over 30 authored and coauthored books—such as the famous reference CRC Handbook of Medicinal Herbs (CRC Press 1985; 2nd edition, CRC Press 2002)—and over 400 botanical articles to his credit, he’s also well known for leading exciting tours of the Peruvian Amazon, and
possibly even more famous for accomplishing the latter barefoot.
“Duke’s infectious love of the Amazon, its people and flora, inspire all who travel there, as he plows barefoot through the jungle, seemingly oblivious to the ants, swarms of insects, and the occasional reptile that might lurk beneath the understory,” wrote Steven Foster in a 2001 article for Herbs for Health.1
Though Dr. Duke has had a distinguished career in economic botany, winning the Distinguished Economic Botanist Award in 2000, he started out as a stand-up bass player in a bluegrass band. From there he received a bachelor’s, a master of arts, and a doctorate degree in botany from the University of North Carolina in years 1952, 1955, and 1961. Postdoctoral work at Washington University and Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, Missouri, inspired him to begin his work in neotropical ethnobotany, which he often refers to as his “overriding interest.”1
In 1963 Dr. Duke accepted a position with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). He soon joined Battelle Columbus Laboratories in 1965 and spent the next 7 years in Panama living closely with the natives and studying their relationship to the rainforest. During this time he wrote Isthmian Ethnobotanical Dictionary (published by the author in 1972; 3rd edition, Scientific Publishers 1986), which catalogs hundreds of medicinal plants of the Central American Isthmus and their uses.
In 1971 Dr. Duke returned to the USDA and in 1977 served as chief of the USDA’s Medicinal Plant Laboratory. Next he served as chief of USDA’s Economic Botany Laboratory, and then chief of its Germplasm Resources Laboratory. Over the years he also coordinated with the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to search for anti-cancer and anti-AIDS drugs. The NCI has been responsible for such findings as a mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum, Berberidaceae) root derivative, podophyllotoxin, which is used to produce anti-cancer drugs,2 and a Pacific yew tree (Taxus brevifolia, Taxaceae) bark extract, Taxol®, which is used to treat breast, ovarian, and other cancers.3 Although Dr. Duke was not directly involved in the chemical and pharmacological research that led to the discovery of these drugs, he supervised the collection of such botanical materials that were investigated in the later years of the program.1 During this collaborative period, Dr. Duke started a phytochemical database. Today this database encompasses several phytochemical, ethnobotanical, and medical botany databases, all available free online at www. ars-grin.gov/duke.
Dr. Duke has also been a prolific author. Besides the CRC Handbook of Medicinal Herbs, which has been a standard reference for over 20 years, other notable publications include the Handbook of Legumes of World Economic Importance (Plenum Press 1981), Ginseng: A Concise Handbook (Reference Publications, Inc. 1989), CRC Handbook of Alternative Cash Crops (CRC Press 1993), Amazonian Ethnobotanical Dictionary (CRC Press 1994), and his best-seller, The Green Pharmacy (Rodale Press, 1997; now translated into several languages).
Foster wrote, “My library is arranged by subject; except for two authors—famed 19th century Cincinnati pharmacist John Uri Lloyd and Dr. James A. Duke—both the only authors in the medicinal plant field prolific enough to warrant their own shelves.”1
However, Dr. Duke remains modest through his success. Foster wrote, “I didn’t even know how to start a conversation with someone of the stature of Jim Duke. [He] turned out to be a Southern gentleman first, a famous scientist second.”1
Dr. Duke retired from the USDA in 1995 after 30 years of employment. He continually supports herbal alternatives for modern medicine and educates people about the Peruvian Rainforest by serving as an unpaid consultant and board member to the nonprofit Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research (ACEER), as well as numerous other nonprofits.
“Jim Duke and Norm Farnsworth helped me start ABC, and during those first few years, it was just our names on the original letterhead,” said ABC Founder and Executive Director Mark Blumenthal. “Jim’s being associated with ABC, combined with Norm Farnsworth and (later) the late Prof. Varro Tyler, did much to open doors and create credibility for ABC and, as a result, for herbal medicine.”
When Dr. Duke isn’t giving his 100 or so lectures a year or guiding tours to the Peruvian rainforest with mosquito bitten bare feet, he spends time at his Green Farmacy Garden in Maryland.1
“There you will find the ‘barefoot doctor’ pulling weeds in his vast organic herb garden, perhaps the largest medicinal herb garden in the country,” wrote Foster.1 “If you have the opportunity, go to a lecture presented by Dr. James A. Duke, or better yet sign-up for an eco-tour with him in the Amazon. The rewards will be unforgettable.”
– Kelly E. Saxton
- Foster S. Ode to Jim Duke: America’s chief herbalist. Herbs for Health. September/October 2001;4(6):51-54.
- Becker H. Mayapple’s cancer-fighting precursor. Agricultural Research. July 2000;48(7):9
- Becker H. New technique could boast taxol production. Agricultural Research. April 1999;47(4):13.
ACEER’s Dr. James A. Duke Ethnobotanical Fund
Dr. Jim Duke, founding board member of the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research Foundation (ACEER), has helped guide the ACEER in creating award-winning ethnobotanical gardens at its training facilities in the Peruvian Amazon and in conducting a wide array of academic courses and workshops on botanical medicine, plant systematics, and rainforest ecology.
To honor Dr. Duke, the ACEER is creating an endowed fund—the Dr. James A. Duke Ethnobotanical Fund—to assure that Dr. Duke’s legacy is preserved. Funds will be used to train a new cadre of Latin American students in ethnobotany, offer village-based education programs in indigenous communities, provide research fellowships, and permit scholarships for international students wishing to study at ACEER facilities in the Amazon and Andes. ACEER’s goal is to raise $50,000 by March 1, 2008. Thanks to a generous challenge grant by the Windhover Foundation, every dollar raised for the Duke Fund will be matched dollar for dollar. In this way, ACEER can realize a full $100,000 in support of its ethnobotany programs. If you can afford a generous gift of $2500 or more, please send ACEER a check payable to the ACEER Foundation, noting the Dr. James A. Duke Ethnobotanical Fund. If you would like to make a smaller gift, please make your check out to the WCU Foundation, noting the Duke Fund on the check. (Due to the terms of the Windhover challenge grant, all smaller donations are being directed to the WCU Foundation, which will pool them and make a single large donation on behalf of donors in support of the fund.) All gifts are fully tax deductible. All checks should be mailed to:
P.O. Box 2549-WCUWest Chester, PA 19383
You may also make your gift through PayPal from the ACEER’s home page, http://www.aceer.org/. (Gifts made via PayPal below $2500, however, will not be matched.)
The ACEER has touched the lives of over 1 million individuals worldwide. The Dr. James A. Duke Ethnobotanical Fund will help ACEER touch the lives of many more in the future. For additional information, please contact Marguerite Gould, ACEER’s director of operations, at 610-738-0477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.