Industry loses James Duke, pioneering ethnobotanist

By Hank Schultz contact

- Last updated on GMT

Duke during one of his many trips to the Amazonian rainforest.
Duke during one of his many trips to the Amazonian rainforest.

Related tags: Botany

The herbal dietary supplements industry has lost another of its foundational pioneers with the death of Dr James Duke, PhD, who catalogued thousands of medicinal plants from around the world.

Dr Duke, who was 88, passed away on Sunday after a period of declining health. Dr Duke, who was born in Birmingham, AL, was a pioneering ethnobotanist who amassed and published phytochemical and ethnobotanical databases while working with the United States Department of Agriculture.

Diverse background

Dr Duke was a bluegrass fiddler who performed at the Grande Ole Opry. He earned a degree in botany in 1955 and a doctorate in botany in 1961 from the University of North Carolina. He served three years at the Missouri Botanical Garden and seven years at the Battelle Memorial Institute in Panama, Colombia and Columbus, OH, as an ecologist. For 27 years he served as an economic botanist at USDA before retiring in 1995, after which he continued to publish botanical literature prodigiously.  Many of the prominent stakeholders in the herbal products industry knew Dr Duke personally.

"Beyond Dr. Duke's invaluable contributions to the herbal industry, he was a humble man who personified the Southern gentleman,"​ said Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association. "His sincere passion for understanding how humans used plants as medicine to promote health and well-being helped numerous individuals improve their quality of life using herbs and botanicals. Jim's passing will be mourned by the herbal community, but his work and legacy will not be forgotten and will help future generations benefit from herbal medicine.

ABC cofounder

Among those who knew him best was Mark Blumenthal, who founded the American Botanical Council with Dr Duke and another industry pioneer, the late Dr Norman Farnsworth, PhD. Blumenthal said Dr Duke never threw around the weight of the considerable knowledge of medicinal plants that he had amassed.  But he had a quirky way of categorizing that knowledge, which is reflected in his USDA databases, and a highly personal way of sharing his wisdom in personal appearances.

There was a time when Jim was doing lectures at some of the natural products trade shows.  The talk would be sponsored by some company or the other, but Jim would talk about whatever he wanted to talk about.  He would talk in a very stream of consciousness type of way.  And hed make up songs about herbal products that were loaded with double and triple entendres,​ Blumenthal told NutraIngredients-USA.

Pioneering enthnobotanical work

In Dr Duke’s early work in Panama he studied the ethnobotany of the Choco and Cuna native groups and also published his first book — Isthmian Ethnobotanical Dictionary​, a 96-page handbook describing medicinal plants of the Central American isthmus.  Later while at USDA under a contract from the of the National Cancer Institute, Dr Duke catalogued plants that had folkloric evidence of anti-cancer effects, to form an early database for possible future drug discovery. This effort took him all over the world.

Jim was the guy who went around pulling all these plants for all these databases.  He would have lots of stories about his escapades in Third World countries,​ Blumenthal said.

After the program ended in 1981, Dr Duke continued his work at USDA as Chief of the Germplasm Resources Laboratory. In that role he collecting data and plant material on food crops from around the world.

Jim had a photographic memory for botanical information,​ Blumenthal said. They say you can take the boy out of the country but you cant take the country out of the boy, and he loved to spend time barefoot in his medicinal plant garden outside of Washington, DC.

One of the great blessings of my life was I got travel 15 times or so on ethnobotanical trips to the rainforest that were sponsored by ABC. I cant begin express the debt of gratitude I owe to him,​ he said.

Dr Duke’s databases are still hosted on the USDA website.  They can be accessed here​.

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