Medicinal Plant Researcher Norman Farnsworth Dies at 81

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Norman R. Farnsworth, expert medicinal plant researcher and distinguished professor of pharmacognosy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, died September 10 in a Chicago hospital. He was 81.

Norman Farnsworth, a longtime botanical researcher, contributed much to the
field of pharmacognosy and to the lives of his students.
Photo by UIC Pharmacy/Courtesy

Farnsworth started his distinguished career when he graduated from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy in 1953 with a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy. He then went on to earn his doctorate in pharmacognosy, the study of drugs from natural origins, from the University of Pittsburgh in 1959. In addition, Farnsworth received three honorary professorships and three honorary doctorates during his lifetime.

After graduating, Farnsworth took the world of pharmacognosy and natural products research by storm. He served as a director of the World Health Organization Program for Collaborative Research in the Pharmaceutical Services, which was the first program to bring scientists together from all over the world to collaborate on drug discovery from medicinal plants.

A longtime botanical researcher, Farnsworth also helped co-found the American Botanical Council (ABC), an independent nonprofit research and education organization. He was a founding member of both the American Society of Pharmacognosy (ASP) and the Society for Economic Botany (SEB).

Farnsworth helped his students in their search for success as well, aiding in the launch of more than 100 students’ careers when he served as the Head of the Department of Pharmacognosy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

He received many awards from around the world, including the SEB’s Distinguished Economic Botanic Award in 1983. He was perhaps most famous for his idea to launch a database containing important information about medicinal plants, microbes, marine organisms and fungi. This database, called NAPRALERT, became a reality in 1975 and is still in use today. 

His research was invaluable to the world of pharmacognosy and contributed to more than 500 scientific publications and reviews.

He is survived by his wife Priscilla Marston Farnsworth, his brother, Bruce, and sister-in-law, Donna. In lieu of flowers, his family requests that memorials be directed to the University of Illinois Foundation/University of Illinois at Chicago, College of Pharmacy, for the Norman R. Farnsworth Endowed Professorship in medicinal chemistry and pharmacognosy. 

For more information about the life and successes of Norman Farnsworth, click here.

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