Ode to Jim Duke: America's Chief Herbalist

The amazing career of James A. Duke, Ph.D., is still flourishing.
September/October 2001
http://www.motherearthliving.com/Health-and-Wellness/Ode-to-Jim-Duke-Americas-chief-herbalist.aspx
Duke applies the extract of an Amazonian tree leaf to a friend’s insect bite.


photographs by Steven Foster

We were on a flight from Miami to the hot, humid, ancient rain forest city of Iquitos, Peru. You may remember the main character in The Celestine Prophecy (Warner, 1997) driving to Iquitos, the “capital of the Amazon.” The fact is, there are only two ways to get there—by air or via the Amazon River. There are no roads to Iquitos.

I was traveling to the Amazon for the first time with the American Botanical Council’s “Pharmacy from the Rainforest” program for pharmacists in the fall of 1995. Because our group on the flight numbered more than 100 people, the instructors got upgraded to first class. I sat next to Jim Duke, who had made the trip too many times to count (up to ten times a year). It was my first trip to the real tropics, besides a short stint to Guatemala during the dry season. The flight was rough. The flight attendants plied us with drinks, and our conversation lasted the length of the flight. Duke treated me like he was taking a kid to a candy store.

“You’re going to get the tropical bug,” he leaned over and said.

I pulled out my immunization card. “What do you mean?” I asked. “I’ve got all of my shots. And here are my malaria pills.”

“No,” Duke replied, “I mean, after you come here once, you will want to come back as much as you can. If it wasn’t for the fact that I can’t get my wife to live down here, I would move here myself.”

On the four-hour flight, he told me story after story and prepared me for what lay ahead.

“Every ten feet you walk, you will see something different,” Duke explained. “The diversity is incredible. Near my home in Maryland there are about thirty species of woody plants per hectare. In the Peruvian rain forest there are over 300 woody species per hectare. This unbelievable diversity must be experienced to be believed. Words can’t describe it.”

At home in the Amazon

After a night in Iquitos, the trip’s 120-plus participants loaded into boats and went down the Amazon River to Explorama Lodge, a rustic but comfortable facility featuring all the creature comforts a rain forest camp can offer (with emphasis on the word “creature,” as a tarantula-sized spider crawled across my room).

“You get it out,” I told my roommate, Larry Wilson, the herpetologist on the trip. “You’re the animal guy—I’m just a plant guy.” He grudgingly obliged.

Explorama Lodge served as the main camp for the trip. Two other locales were featured, Napo Camp and the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research (ACEER), up a branch of an Amazon tributary, the Napo River.

Duke was the perfect host. One afternoon, he took herbalist Amanda McQuade Crawford and me to visit a friend of his who lived on the Amazon River’s banks, not far from the lodge. His friend, a farmer, grew sugarcane, which he turned into a sickly sweet version of white lightening in a battered old copper still; “rum,” Duke called it. The farmer’s wife made drinks for us—half fresh-squeezed ginger juice and half “rum.” It sure took the cares away and cured the tourista, too. Why, if an anaconda had swum by in the nearby rushing waters of the Amazon, I just might have hopped on its back and taken a ride to our next day’s venue—ACEER.

ACEER was two hours away by boat, followed by a thirty-minute hike through the primary rain forest. ACEER is Duke’s home away from home, now that he is “retired.” At ACEER, Duke and his local shaman colleague, Don Antonio, freely share knowledge on the ethnobotany of Amazonia. Duke’s infectious love of the Amazon, its people, and its flora inspire all who travel there, as he plows barefoot through the jungle, seemingly oblivious to the ants, swarms of insects, and the occasional reptile that might lurk beneath the understory. For those who know Duke from North American venues such as scientific conferences, herb gatherings, or a North Carolina bluegrass stage, you know that you are really seeing him at home—where his heart is—when you see him in the primary rain forest of the Amazon.

Duke was right about his prediction on the plane. I did get the tropical bug. Since traveling to the Amazon with him, I am committed to taking a trip to a tropical location at least once a year. I thank him for that.

First encounter with the herbal giant

I met Duke in Santa Cruz, California, in the autumn of 1978, long before his fame had traveled from the halls of relative academic obscurity to herbal celebrity. We met in the backyard of the home of Paul Lee, then executive director of the Herb Trade Association, which was hosting the Second International Herb Symposium at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Duke had just walked to Lee’s house from his hotel, with notebook in hand, documenting the varieties of opium poppies that grew as ornamentals in people’s yards. I was twenty-one years old and had just left the Sabbathday Lake, Maine, Shaker Community, where I had been for four years. I grew up in Maine, and that trip to California was my first trip west of New York City. I was also meeting some of the giants of medicinal plant research for the first time.

First impressions are everything. I didn’t even know how to start a conversation with someone of Duke’s stature. After all, he was one of the few medicinal plant researchers at the time and certainly the only scientist in the federal government researching herbal medicines (at least clandestinely, if not officially). At the time, he was chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Botany Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland.

Humility rarely follows success. Duke, as he refers to himself, turned out to be a Southern gentleman first and a famous scientist second. His interest in poppies grew out of his second stint with the USDA, starting in 1971, which took him to Iran to study species diversity in opium poppies as part of his professional role in researching crop diversification and medicinal plant studies in developing countries. His passion for how humans use plants as medicine rolled from his tongue and, at once, he put me at ease. Here was a man who was more interested in what I might have to say to him than in what he might have to say to me. He stood next to a mullein plant in Lee’s garden, and I snapped a picture. Duke recited his mullein poem.

Mullein leaf is one herb that they use
As an innersole lining for shoes
From what people tell
It cures asthma as well;
And helps when the bowels are loose

The picture I took that day, along with the poem on mullein, appears in one of the more obscure of Duke’s twenty-some books, Herbalbum: An Anthology of Varicose Verse, published in a staple-bound, photocopied edition in 1985. Herbalbum is a collection of more than 400 herbal poems. Duke also recorded a couple of dozen songs set to bluegrass melodies, also called Herbalbum. In case you’re wondering how the syllables break out for pronunciation, that’s “herbal-bum” for the poems, and “herb-album” for the songs—recorded on vinyl, written and performed by Jim Duke and his bluegrass buddies (later released on cassette and CD).

Duke’s details

Duke, a key figure of the herbal renaissance (a phrase coined by Lee), is a Renaissance man in the broadest sense. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1929, Duke was a bluegrass fiddler by age sixteen and even appeared at the Grand Ole Opry. An interest in plants was not far behind his interest in music. In 1955, he received a degree in botany from the University of North Carolina. In 1961, the same institution conferred a doctorate in botany upon him. Postgraduate work took him to Washington University and the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. It was there that he developed what has become, as he puts it, “my overriding interest—neotropical ethnobotany.”

Early in Duke’s career with the Missouri Botanical Garden, his work took him to Panama, where he penned painstaking technical descriptions of plants in eleven plant families for the Flora of Panama project, published in the Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden. During his years in Panama, he also studied the ethnobotany of the Choco and Cuna native groups. Another fruit of these years was his first book—Isthmanian Ethnobotanical Dictionary, a ninety-six-page handbook describing medicinal plants of the Central American isthmus.

In 1963, Duke took a position with the USDA, focusing on tropical ecology, especially seedling ecology. From 1965 to 1971, he worked on ecological and ethnological research in Panama and Colombia for Battelle Columbus Laboratories. Duke doesn’t talk about this work. However, if you put some of the pieces of the puzzle together, his more obscure publications of this six-year era reveal the focus of some of the research. Many of his publications were prepared for his employer on behalf of the former Atomic Energy Commission. The work was akin to environmental impact statements on the effects of radiation on tropical organisms. The Kennedy Administration had an idea. They initiated a feasibility study to widen the Panama Canal, or perhaps excavate a new canal to accommodate super tankers. America had a tool that would easily accomplish the excavation work—nuclear devices. Duke’s studies may have helped to show that such an excavation project was not a good idea.

After that stint, Duke returned to the USDA in 1971, where he worked on crop diversification, creating a database called the Crop Diversification Matrix, with extensive biological, ecological, and economic data on thousands of cultivated crops. His interest in medicinal plants never waned, no matter what unrelated tasks bureaucrats pushed his way. In 1977, he became chief of the Medicinal Plant Laboratory at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville and then chief of the USDA’s Economic Botany Laboratory. At the time, the USDA was under contract with the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to collect plant materials from all over the world, to screen for potential anticancer compounds.

National Cancer Institute work

The contract with the NCI was established in 1960. Over the next twenty years, the USDA screened about 35,000 species of higher (flowering) plants for activity against cancer. About 3,000 of those demonstrated reproducible activity. A small fraction of these (including mayapple and yew derivatives) were eventually chosen for clinical trials. Duke supervised these collections in the later years of the program.

On October 2, 1981, the board of scientific counselors at the Division of Cancer Treatment at the NCI decided to abolish the plant-screening program—not enough new drugs came from the research. Later in the 1980s, new automated laboratory technologies emerged, with better cell lines targeted toward human cancers. These technologies resulted in the NCI reforming its natural-products screening program. This time, however, collection contracts were given to major botanical institutions such as the Missouri Botanical Garden and the New York Botanical Garden, rather than the USDA.

Duke continued his work at the USDA as chief of the Germplasm Resources Laboratory, collecting data and plant material on food crops from around the world. He also continued his association with the National Institutes of Health and the NCI, working on potential anticancer and anti-AIDS drug leads. Later, from 1990 to 1992, he consulted with NCI’s Designer Food Program (to document plants with potential cancer-preventing activity) under the direction of the late Herb Pierson. During the Reagan Administration, he was also charged with the unenviable, and as Duke admits, “impossible,” task of finding a replacement crop in the Andes for coca, the ancient Inca stimulant and source of its abused alkaloid, cocaine.

Stepping into “retirement”

All the while, Duke not only continued his personal interest in medicinal plants—increasing his database to include more than 80,000 plant species—but began a flurry of publication activity that continues unabashed. Works from this era include many of his important scholarly books such as the CRC Handbook of Medicinal Herbs (CRC Press, 1985), which is a standard technical reference on medicinal plants yet still a good read for the layperson.

After more than thirty years of service, Duke retired from the USDA in September of 1995. “Retirement” is hardly a word that applies in the traditional sense—it was more like a coming-out party. What retirement meant for the herb world was that Duke could write what he wanted to write and say what he wanted to say. Retirement for him, by fate not design, was the beginning of a new career as America’s herbal guru, tempered by a dose of Alabama charm.

When Duke is not on the lecture circuit (which includes 100 or more venues a year) or leading groups to the Amazon, he is at his rural “farmette” in Maryland with Peggy Duke, his wife of many decades and a noted botanical illustrator and teacher in her own right. There you will find “the barefoot doctor” pulling weeds in his vast organic herb garden, perhaps the largest private medicinal herb garden in the country, with more than eighty plots of plants arranged by disease condition, representing hundreds of species of medicinal herbs.

In honor of his scientific knowledge of plant uses, including more than 400 botanical publications, Duke was honored with the 2000 Distinguished Economic Botanist award—the highest award conferred by the Society for Economic Botany.

Still going strong

How do you write a story about someone you’ve known for twenty-three years, who’s been profiled by everyone from People magazine to The New York Times (and more than once in each) without sounding glib? When I started writing this profile, I decided to go through my Duke files. That search netted a pile of correspondence and articles by him or about him nearly two feet tall. Sometimes having too much is worse than having too little!

At a seemingly ageless seventy-two years, Duke is still in the prime of his output. My home library is arranged by subject, except for two authors—famed nineteenth-century Cincinnati pharmacist John Uri Lloyd, and Duke. They are the only authors in the medicinal plant field prolific enough to warrant their own shelves. Duke has some catching up to do, though. My shelf of Lloyd books is three feet wide. My shelf of Duke books is a mere two feet wide. I expect Duke will make up the difference, and I hope one of the titles that fills that space will be a Jim Duke memoir.


Steven Foster is lead editorial adviser of Herbs for Health and is the author of several books, including 101 Medicinal Herbs (Interweave, 1998).