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Alvin Segelman 1931-2011

Pharmacognosist Alvin B. Segelman, PhD, died October 8, 2011, from surgery-related complications. He was 80 years old.1

Dr. Segelman was well known for his work on the anti-mutagenicity of chlorophyll and chlorophyll derivatives in plants, his early support and usage of botanical quality control measures, and his research on botanical antimicrobial activity in the prevention and treatment of gastritis, ulcers, and cancer.

Raised in Boston, Massachusetts, Dr. Segelman obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.2,3 After working as a pharmacist for several years, he obtained his doctoral degree in pharmacognosy from the University of Pittsburg (UP), where he studied under the world-renowned pharmacognosists Maynard Quimby and Heber Youngken, Jr.

While at UP, Dr. Segelman met and fell in love with fellow pharmacognosy student Florence Pettler. The two married and moved to New Jersey, where they both taught pharmacognosy at Rutgers University for almost 20 years. For 6 of these years, Dr. Segelman served as the chairman of the Pharmacognosy Department and also conducted field and lab research on bioactive agents in the United States, South America, Middle East, and Fiji.3

Joseph Betz, PhD—director of the Dietary Supplement Methods and Reference Materials Program at the Office of Dietary Supplements—met Dr. Segelman when he was at Rutgers. “[Alvin] was part of a generation that looked at the world and saw our connection to it,” said Dr. Betz. “He was a keen observer of nature and a student of history who saw nature as a resource to be used if we were clever enough to figure out how to look at it the right way. He specialized in discovering antibiotics when I first met him, and was very passionate about the ‘specialness’ of natural products and skeptical of approaches that were too reductionist” (e-mail communication, December 20, 2011).

In 1990, Dr. Segelman left Rutgers to become Vice President of Research and Development at Nature’s Sunshine Products (NSP), a manufacturer of herbal products based in Utah. At NSP he was responsible for new product development and modern herbal analysis. During his 11 years at NSP, he directed 3 major research projects: “a biotechnology program aimed at utilizing chlorophyll-derived agents coupled with fiber optics-guided laser light for the photodynamic therapy of cancer disease; a program aimed at studying the effects of herbs, foods, and intestinal bacteria on the pharmacokinetics of anti-ulcer agents in humans; and, lastly, the isolation and structure elucidation of naturally occurring antitumor agents from plants.”3

According to Dr. Betz, Dr. Segelman was an early champion of modern quality control methods for botanicals. “He had Nature’s Sunshine acquire a mass spectrometer sometime in the 90s—well before most botanical companies could even spell [mass spectrometer],” said Dr. Betz.

In 1995, Dr. Betz invited Dr. Segelman to speak about natural products at a Washington, DC, meeting of the American Chemical Society. Dr. Segelman made the trip from Utah and spoke to the audience about the need to use all available tools for the confirmation of botanical identity and quality, rather than relying on shortcuts.

“He prepared by having his assistant prepare 2 specimens, powdered belladonna root [Atropa belladonna, Solanaceae] and autoclaved horse manure (to destroy odor) to which atropine had been added,” said Dr. Betz. “Sure enough, thin-layer chromatography [TLC] of the horse manure specimen was beautiful, and the TLC plate was relatively clean and gave a beautiful spot for atropine. The TLC plate for authentic belladonna was messy in appearance. Judged by TLC examination for atropine alone, the horse manure was clearly the ‘superior’ raw material. He also did some microscopy on both. Both materials showed lignified fibers, but the root was loaded with starch grains, which the horse’s GI tract had done a pretty good job of removing. The punch line was that if you don’t do everything it takes to evaluate the raw material, you can literally accept sh— for your product.”

Dr. Segelman was highly respected for his scientific acumen. According to American Botanical Council Founder and Executive Director Mark Blumenthal, “If Alvin’s colleague and fellow MCP and Pitt graduate Professor Norman Farnsworth were alive today, I know that he would say that ‘Alvin had a photographic memory.’ I remember Norm’s telling me this about Alvin, some considerable admiration, on numerous occasions, so I know it’s probably true.”

During his time at NSP, Dr. Segelman helped develop the company’s homeopathic and Ayurvedic product lines, as well as the product Gastro-Health®, for which NSP retains patent rights.2 According to Tad Turgeon, research investigator at NSP, many people referred to Dr. Segelman as “classically trained” or a “wet chemist” because he was a plant microscopy expert. “While much of his research was based on microscopy,” said Turgeon, “his most important scientific contribution to the natural product industry may have been his work on chlorophyll and its role in cancer prevention. He was very passionate about his work. He often raised his voice to exemplify his point. Dr. Segelman had a vast knowledge of the history of natural products, which will be lost forever with his passing” (e-mail, December 19, 2011).

Having such a deep devotion to nature and history, Dr. Segelman was a member of the Linnaean Society of London,3 the world’s oldest active biological society that focuses on the evolution, taxonomy, biodiversity, and sustainability of flora and fauna. He was also a scholar on Israeli history and current affairs and was very interested in firearms, which friends say likely stemmed from his time spent as a lieutenant in the US Army.2 He is survived by his children Lauren Barnes and Sheera Lader, grandchildren, and brother Myron Segelman.1

—Lindsay Stafford


  1. In Memory of Alvin Burton Segelman. Stanetsky Memorial Chapel. Available at: Accessed December 14, 2011.
  2. Turgeon T. In Memoriam: Alvin B. Segelman Ph.D [unpublished]. NSP Health Sciences. Nature’s Sunshine Products.
  3. Alvin Segelman biography [unpublished]. Nature’s Sunshine Products. From T. Turgeon to L. Stafford. December 19, 2011.