Richard Schultes, Jungle-Drug Explorer, Dies at 86
By Elaine Woo

In 1947, the botanist Richard Evans Schultes was traveling up an Amazon tributary in a rain-soaked, leaking barge. The plants he had collected for weeks were rotting because he had used poor-quality formaldehyde to preserve them. He was wracked by high fever, unrelenting nausea and limb pain — signs, he would later leam, of malaria and beriberi.

Before dawn, the barge crashed into a tree, destroying the cabin. Nearly every-one on board was terrified.

Everyone but Mr. Schultes.

"With my flashlight, I saw that the tree was in young fruit, with a recently fertilized ovary," his journal entry said. "So I broke off a few branches to put in the press later." When dawn came," his journal entry said, "I examined the plant — it was 'Micrandra minor,' which I am especially anxious to collect!"

So it went in the life of the Amazon plant explorer, who died April 10 in Boston at 86. Although he called himself "just a jungle botanist," he was a founding father of an entire branch of science: ethnobotany, which studies the relationship between plants and people in indigenous cultures.

He found 2,000 plant specimens that are used as medicines or poisons. Recognized as the foremost expert on hallucinogenic and medicinal plants, he inadvertently helped spark the psychedelic age. His Ph.D. was from Harvard, where he later became a professor. In 1953, his thesis on hallucinogenic mushrooms was discovered by a Morgan Guaranty Trust executive, Gordon Wasson, whose hobby was studying the role of mushrooms in European and Asian cultures.

One question Mr. Wasson had puzzled over was why some cultures revered mushrooms. When he read Mr. Schultes' thesis, he took off for the Mexican state of Oaxaca, setting in motion a chain of events that would shape American social history. Mr. Wasson managed to find a traditional healer who allowed him to ingest the mushrooms as part of a sacred ceremony. His description of the experience was published in a Life magazine article titled "Seeking the Magic Mushrooms." It would be read by a young Harvard lecturer, Timothy Leary, who a few years later would try the mushrooms, too.

In the field, Mr. Schultes was careful to ingest no more than half of what healers prescribed. "I never got scared," he told E. J. Kahn Jr. of The New Yorker. "I did get color reactions, like colored clouds or mists going by, but probably because I took limited dosages, I never saw visions." At Harvard, where he directed the botanical museum and taught until retirement in 1985, he was venerated, particularly for his skillful demonstrations on a six-foot blowgun.. In later years, he was a forceful defender of peyote as a sacrament in the American-Indian church. His recognition that many of the plants he studied were sacred in indigenous cultures was central to his commitment to preserving the rainforest, well before others took up that cause.

This obituary first appeared in the Los Angeles Times and was reprinted in the International Herald Tribune, 2001-04-24, p.3

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