(Image: Harvard University Herbaria)
The other day I watched a fascinating TED talk from ethnobotanist Wade Davis, one of my heroes and favorite writers, in which he mentioned his mentor, Harvard ethnobotanist Richard E. Schultes (say SHULL-tees).
Schultes was a sort of real-life Indiana Jones, a mild-mannered, middle-class, Ivy-league scientist who had a flipside life of hunting the Colombian Amazon, solo, for botanic treasure. He spent over a year at a time in the rainforest finding plant species new to science, traveling solo with minimal supplies, and joining native people in religious ceremonies involving psychoreactive drugs.
From the web page Richard Schultes: Explorer of the Amazon Jungle:
Schultes was the first to reveal how psychoactive and toxic plants touched every aspect of the lives of people like the Kofán. He was also the first to appreciate the astonishing range of plants used by indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin and how hallucinogenic plants were at the heart of their sacred rituals and medical practice. As Davis remarks, the Kofán indians are ‘the masters, the patrons of ecstatic intoxication’.
Schultes, born in 1915, was a labcoat-wearing scientist, an orchid-garden curator, a demanding biology professor. According to Davis he was also the person who kicked off the psychedelic drug movement in the U.S. through his studies of Mexican psychoreactive mushrooms.
He was also a force for environmental awareness and scientific discovery, and according to Wikipedia,
Schultes’ botanical fieldwork among Native American communities led him to be one of the first to alert the world about destruction of the Amazon rainforest and the disappearance of its native people. He collected over 24,000 herbarium specimens and published numerous ethnobotanical discoveries including the source of the dart poison known as curare, now commonly employed as a muscle relaxant during surgery.
I might be misremembering, but a Schultes story I think I read once involved Schultes getting sick with malaria while exploring the Colombian Amazon. As he lay feverish and very ill, a native man watched over him. One day Schultes was lucid enough to thank the man for looking after him.
“I’m not watching over you,” the man said. “I’m waiting for you to die so I can take your stuff.”
Richard Evans Schultes lived to be 86 years old and is considered to be the father of modern ethnobotany. Read his 2001 NYT obituary here.