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If you like Richard Schultes's story, you might also like:
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Norman Borlaug,
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Richard Schultes
Richard Schultes
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Richard Schultes Biography

The Father of Modern Ethnobotany

Richard Schultes Date of birth: January 12, 1915
Date of death: April 10, 2001

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  Richard Schultes

Dr. Richard Evans Schultes, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of German immigrants. He first showed an interest in plants on his uncle's farm, amassing an impressive collection of New England flora. This boyhood fascination waned as he grew older, replaced by a desire to become a surgeon. While at Harvard, however, his nascent medical career was nipped in the bud by a professor -- Dr. Oakes Ames.

Richard Schultes Biography Photo
Ames taught a course with the prosaic title, "A Practical Introduction to Useful and Harmful Plants." While the title may have been mundane, the course and its teacher most emphatically were not. Ames perceptively noted his student's botanical gifts, and deliberately set out to engage Schultes' interest. He succeeded. In a matter of days, he had re-kindled the embers of Schultes' early interest in plants into a blaze that utterly consumed his plans for a medical career. Schultes would be a botanist.

In 1941, the National Research Council awarded Schultes a grant to visit Colombia and study the effects of arrow poisons used by the indigenous population. He was still in Colombia, exploring possible medical uses for the deadly arrow poison curare when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into World War II. Schultes reported to the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá fully expecting to be drafted. Instead, he was sent back to the Amazonian rain forest to revive the region's long-dormant rubber industry for the Allied war effort.

Richard Schultes Biography Photo
The close bonds Schultes forged with the native peoples during this period paid handsome dividends when he returned to purely scientific research at the conclusion of hostilities.His studies were no longer limited to rubber and poison research, he now sought and investigated any potentially useful plants. The immensity of this task was staggering. As Schultes noted, "To give you some measuring rod, New England has 1,900 species of plants. In the Amazon there are 80,000." He knew that it would take an army of botanists hundreds of years to collect them all, and yet another army of pharmacologists a similar length of time to analyze their properties. But in a brilliant flash of insight, Schultes realized that in describing this apparently intractable problem, he had simultaneously hit upon its solution.

In fact, Schultes reasoned, armies of native botanists and medicos had been collecting and analyzing these plants, not merely for hundreds, but for thousands of years. Carefully noting what worked and what didn't, they passed that information down from generation to generation. So Schultes recruited the past and present native peoples of Amazonia as his de facto field workers, taking their centuries of accumulated herb lore as the starting point for his own research.

By concentrating on plants already shown to affect the human mind and body -- including poisons, purgatives and hallucinogens -- Schultes saved untold years of research. Whatever their uses in aboriginal societies, Schultes felt sure that they had at least the potential of yielding further secrets to modern science. His optimism was justified. For example, a diluted form of the deadly poison curare is now used as a muscle relaxant in surgery. Similarly, rotenone, a plant used in fishing, is the basis for a particularly effective and rapidly biodegradable insecticide. To Schultes's everlasting astonishment and chagrin, one of his scholarly papers on hallucinogenic fungi spawned a Life Magazine article entitled "Seeking the Magic Mushroom" that inspired Timothy Leary -- America's self-proclaimed guru of altered consciousness -- to do just that.

Richard Schultes Biography Photo
In his 50-year career, Schultes collected over 25,000 plant specimens and uncounted academic honors. The Director of Harvard's Botanical Museum, he received both the prestigious Tyler Prize and the World Wildlife Fund's Gold Medal. In his honor, The Richard Evans Schultes Award is presented annually to a leading ethnobotanist. He also authored many important publications, at least one of which gained notoriety due to a bizarre and completely unintended effect.

Schultes's most enduring legacy, however, is surely the legion of gifted students he taught during his 27 years at Harvard following his return from South America. That generation built on his pioneering work to make Ethnobotany a universally recognized and respected discipline.

In recalling their mentor, those students invariably cite his kindness and encouragement, as well as his legendary encyclopedic knowledge. But sooner or later, they all mention his eight-foot Amazonian blowpipe, extensive collection of darts, and unerring ability to hit a tiny target at the back of a large lecture hall. And then they smile nervously, which may explain why, in more than a quarter of a century, there were no inattentive students in Dr. Richard Evans Schultes' classrooms.

This page last revised on Feb 02, 2005 16:12 EDT
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