Richard Shultes
Obituary by Herbert Girardet

The work of Richard Schultes, who has died aged 86, was in the tradition of some of the great botanical explorers of Amazonia. One of the founders of modern ethno-botany and ethno-pharmacology, he researched the many uses of plants by native cultures, such as the Amazonian Indians, and documented the medicinal application of more than 2,000 of them.

Schultes considered it part of his research to try out preparations, such as coca powder, with the tribesmen with whom he lived. He became the leading authority on hallucinogenic plants such as peyote and ayahuasca, which are used by Indian tribal cultures for ritual purposes.

In the 1950s and 1960s, he influenced the likes of Aldous Huxley, William Burroughs and Timothy Leary, and the drug culture to which they helped to give birth. But, more importantly, he gathered some 24,000 Amazonian plant specimens, of which 120 now carry his name, though Schultes always acknowledged the prior botanical knowledge of his Amazonian tutors.

In the introduction to his Where The Gods Reside (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 recognised an unbelievably rich flora, and the detailed knowledge of it possessed by its native inhabitants. Advancing acculturation and civilisation everywhere spell the doom of extinction of this knowledge faster even than the extinction of species themselves as a result of forest devastation."

Realising this grave threat, Schultes became a pioneering campaigner on protecting the forests from inappropriate, short-term development. He was one of the first researchers to point out that the conversion of forests to cattle ranches was a folly, because the soils would become infertile in a matter of years. He never tired of telling visitors about his deep concern about Amazonia and its tribal cultures.

As a child, Schultes, the son of a Boston plumbing engineer, collected, and dried, plant specimens. Bedridden in early childhood, he became fascinated by Amazonia through reading the 19th-century British naturalist Richard Spruce's Notes Of A Botanist On The Amazon And The Andes. He was educated at East Boston High School and then won a scholarship to Harvard. As an undergraduate, he researched and wrote on the hallucinogen peyote, ritualistically used by Oklahoma's Kiowa Indians. Having received his doctorate — on plants used by the Indians of Oaxaca state in southern Mexico — in 1941, Schultes decided to study the medicinal, narcotic and poisonous plants used by natives of the north-western Amazon, mainly in Colombia.

He spent 14 years almost uninterrupted in this area, journeying its rivers in an aluminium canoe. Schultes initially went to the region to investigate the source of curare, a composite hunting poison made by many different tribes from various plant ingredients. Curare's special characteristic is that it kills the animal hit by a hunter's dart or arrow by paralysing its muscles, but does not kill the person eating its meat.

These properties were found to make it valuable as a muscle relaxant in hospital surgery. He helped to identify more than 70 plant species that were used to produce different versions of the drug. Since the 1930s, curare has been widely used in medicine. At first it was supplied to American and European hospitals by tribal people themselves, but when it was synthesised in laboratories, the trading relationship with the forest people ended.

During the war years, Schultes's work was directed towards the investigation of rubber trees of the genus Hevea, native to the north-western Amazon forests. The main purpose then was to encourage indigenous groups to harvest latex from wild stands of these trees for the war effort after the Japanese occupation of Malaya. After the war, he changed the focus of this work to the collection of living plant material for cultivation in the plantations of tropical countries of Asia and Africa.

After going back to Harvard in 1954 to teach botany, he continued to return every year with some of his students.

Schultes spent most of his time in the Amazon in the villages of tribal people. His approach acknowledged that people who have lived in a complex natural environment for a long time will have acquired a profound knowledge of the botanical riches that it contains and will also have developed complex language systems to match that knowledge.

Schultes believed that tribal people should be approached with the respect due to all people. He treated the often fearsome-looking individuals he met with disarming courtesy and never carried a firearm. "I do not believe in hostile Indians," he said. "All that is required to bring out their gentlemanliness is reciprocal gentlemanliness."

After his retirement from Harvard in 1985 — where he was director of the botanical museum — Schultes, professor emeritus, was honoured with botany's "Nobel prize", the Gold Medal of London's Linnean Society, in 1992. He edited Economic Botany journal (1962-80), published hundreds of scientific articles, and wrote 10 books, including Plants Of The Gods (1979), with Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who synthesised LSD.

Schultes was a man of athletic stature, but with the bespectacled face and high forehead of a man of letters. He was fearless, despite many minor and major accidents in his treks and canoe journeys across Amazonia.

When filming with him for the Channel 4 documentary Jungle Pharmacy in 1988, I asked him about his adventures there. He answered: "I have never really had adventures in the Amazon. In civilisation there are many dangerous situations. We can get run over by a truck or bus any day. There are too many books by people who go to the Amazon for two or three weeks and escape horrible death on every other page of the book they have to write."

Sadly, despite his warnings, Schultes had to witness the continuing destruction of forests in many parts of Amazonia till the very end of his life. But his work contributed to the Colombian government's decision to set aside some 45m acres of land for use only by the sparse Indian population. Of this, 2m acres have been designated Sector Schultes, in honour of his work in the area. The naming of many plants after him and the protection of such a large area of rainforest will be a permanent testimony to Schultes's pioneering conservation work.

In 1959, he married opera singer Dorothy McNeil, who survives him, as do their two sons and a daughter.


This obituary appeared in The Guardian, 2001-04-26.

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