R. E. Schultes: The Father of Ethnobotany

Throughout history, people have depended upon plants for food, clothing, shelter, medicine, tools, spiritual practices, and more. Ethnobotany is the study of these relationships, a field in which Richard Evans Schultes pioneered through his life’s work. He may be most well-known for his work on hallucinogenic plants, as he sparked the beginning of and fueled the psychedelic era with his botanical discoveries.

Here is a biographical summary of Schultes' legacy, as well as an elaboration on what exactly Ethnobotany is and how we can adopt its lens as a way to think about and honor the plants in our everyday lives!

Schultes intaking snuff with help from an Amazonian native

Schultes intaking snuff with help from an Amazonian native

This is an excerpt from Lian's capstone paper that she wrote for her master's degree in the field of museum studies at the Harvard University Extension School. In-text citations have been removed for better readability.

 

Richard Evans Schultes (pronounced SHULL-tees) was born on January 12, 1915 in Boston, Massachusetts. He enrolled in Harvard University in 1933 as a pre-med student, but while enrolled in the course “Plants and Human Affairs” he fell in love with botany. The course, Biology 104 at the time, was an introduction to economic botany or the study of plants of economic importance. This course is still taught periodically at Harvard today, although it is now OEB 59. OEB stands for Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, and the department’s website describes the course as follows:

"Before there was scientific study of plants, before plants were formally named, and long before the importance of plants in ecosystems was understood, humans used plants – some to eat or to avoid, some to be used for making sturdy and water proof dwellings, others for clothing and fire, some healed and others set-off technicolor displays of mental fireworks... In this course we will study the structure of plants and their biochemical properties in the context of how we use particular plant material and how they figured in human activities in the past. By referring to traditional uses we will reflect on agriculture, forestry and discovery and exploration."

Discovery and exploration certainly dictated Schultes’ path after enrolling in this course. He promptly switched his studies to botany for his undergraduate degree and continued onto graduate school at Harvard University. He then traveled to Mexico for his doctoral fieldwork and spent five months living in northeastern Oaxaca studying the economic uses of plants. It was here that Schultes sparked the beginning of the psychedelic era with his 1938 discovery of teonanacatl, psilocybin mushrooms known to the Aztec as “Flesh of the Gods."

He also identified ololiuqui, another sacred Aztec hallucinogen and species of morning glory known as “the serpent vine,” whose seeds contain a chemical analogue of lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD. Schultes identified these two species, and his friend, Albert Hofmann, a chemist, identified the chemical substances that made them hallucinogenic.

The Plants of the Gods

Book collaboratively written by both Schultes and Albert Hofmann

In 1941, Schultes received his Ph.D. with a doctoral dissertation titled, “Economic Aspects of the Flora of Northeastern Oaxaca.” In his dissertation, Schultes delves into the ritual uses of this hallucinogenic fungus and plant in addition to many other plants economically important to the Aztecs and the Mayans.

Upon returning from Mexico in 1941, Schultes took a research associate position at the Harvard Botanical Museum (now part of the Harvard University Herbaria) and became a teaching assistant to the course, “Plants and Human Affairs” that same year. Also that year, Schultes received a grant to travel to the Amazon rain forest to locate and research curare, an extract produced from various plants that the native people used as arrow poison for hunting. Curare was, at the time, also being researched and used as a muscle-relaxant during surgeries.

While in the Amazon, Schultes heard of the attack on Pearl Harbor and immediately left for the American Embassy in Colombia to enlist in the armed services. However, with the Japanese occupation of the British and Dutch rubber plantations in Southeast Asia (America’s source of rubber), the United States government decided that his services would be more valuable if he remained in Colombia as a botanist finding and researching rubber trees for the war effort. Thus, Schultes was told to head back to the rain forest.

He lived mostly in the Amazon for the next dozen years researching rubber trees, collecting thousands of specimens, and learning about medicinal plants with indigenous people. Other than a change of clothes, he carried with him only a machete, a hammock, plant-collecting gear, a camera, a small medical kit, a few books and journals including a Latin dictionary, and a few cans of Boston baked beans to lift his spirits when things were hard. During this time in the Amazon, Schultes discovered many plant species previously unknown to science and experienced, as the “Plants and Human Affairs” course description put it, many “technicolor displays of mental fireworks” (by personally experimenting with hallucinogenic plant preparations in rituals with indigenous peoples).

It is important to note that Schultes was not interested in the recreational use of any of the hallucinogenic plants he collected and studied. In an interview over a dozen years after his time in the Amazon, he states,

"I could not care less about their use, misuse or abuse in our own society. My interest in them has been purely medical: can they provide us with a new medically valuable agent? And, of course, from some of the recently discovered hallucinogens, there have been chemicals, such as alkaloids, that are now used in experimental or even therapeutic psychiatry: mescaline and psilocybin. So it is not theoretical. It is actual fact."

Schultes felt as though he was searching “for nature’s wealth that may help humanity” rather than uncovering new drugs with which to simply get high.

Schultes collecting botanical specimens with the help of indigenous Amazonian people

Schultes collecting botanical specimens with the help of indigenous Amazonian people

After his expeditions, Schultes returned to Harvard in 1953 to lead the life of an academic. He served as the curator of the Orchid Herbarium of Oakes Ames, the Curator of Economic Botany, and ultimately became the director of the Botanical Museum. He taught both undergraduate and graduate courses at Harvard and was awarded the title of Edward C. Jeffrey Professor of Biology Emeritus in 1985. Schultes also became a pioneering conservationist, drawing upon his fieldwork experiences to publish and speak extensively as to the urgency of environmental conservation and the preservation of ethnobotanical knowledge. He authored ten books, over 450 scientific articles, and served as editor of the journal Economic Botany as well as on the editorial boards of several other scientific periodicals. Among numerous awards received throughout his career, Schultes was granted the 1992 gold medal of the Linnean Society of London, an award considered to be the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for botany. Schultes died in 2001 in Boston, Massachusetts at the age of 86, a victim of Alzheimer’s disease.

Schultes himself states that there are numerous definitions of ethnobotany, with the simplest being “that it is the study of the uses of plants in primitive societies in both modern and ancient times”. However, he elaborates with a more inclusive definition that ethnobotany “would encompass the study of the uses, technological manipulation, classification, indigenous nomenclature, agricultural, systems, magico-religious concepts, conservation techniques and general sociological importance of the flora in primitive or pre-literate societies”. Thus, ethnobotany is a dynamic field of relationships. Editors of the United Kingdom handbook, Curating Biocultural Collections, provide a particularly helpful illustration of this: “For example, rice is more than a grain, it is planted, grown, domesticated, harvested, selected, cooked, eaten, made into paper, used as symbols and in ritual, and central cosmologically to many cultures.”

How does this make you think about the plants in your everyday lives? What about the plants you smoke? What is their story? What is your relationship to them? What role are they holding in your life?

 

References:

Kandell, Jonathan. “Richard E. Schultes, 86, Dies ; Trailblazing Authority on Hallucinogenic Plants.” The New York Times. 2001. www.nytimes.com/2001/04/13/us/richard-e-schultes-86-dies-trailblazing-authority-on-hallucinogenic-plants.html

The President and Fellows of Harvard College. Richard Evans Schultes Papers. 2002. botlib.huh.harvard.edu/libraries/Nash/schultes.htm.

Weil, Andrew. Foreword. The Lost Amazon: The Pioneering Expeditions of Richard Evans Schultes, by Wade Davis, Earth Aware Editions, 2016, pp. xxi-xxv.

The President and Fellows of Harvard College. OEB 59: Plants and Human Affairs. 2018. pfistergroup.oeb.harvard.edu/classes/oeb-59-plants-and-human-affairs.

Davis, Wade. The Lost Amazon: The Pioneering Expeditions of Richard Evans Schultes. Earth Aware Editions, 2016.

Schultes, R. E. “The ‘Social-Chemistry’ of Pharmacological Discovery, The Virola Story.” Social Pharmacology, vol. 3, no. 4, 1988, pp. 297-314.

Schultes, R. E. “Amazonia ethnobotany and the search for new drugs.” Ethnobotany and the Search for New Drugs, edited by Derek J. Chadwick and Joan Marsh, John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 1994, pp. 106-115.

Salick, J., et al. “Biocultural collections: needs, ethics and goals.” Curating Biocultural Collections: A Handbook, edited by Jan Salick, Katie Konchar, and Mark Nesbitt, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, 2014, pp. 1-13.

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