Ode to Jim Duke: America's Chief Herbalist

The amazing career of James A. Duke, Ph.D., is still flourishing.

| September/October 2001

  • Duke and herbalist Amanda McQuade Crawford, with a local woman, drink homemade rum mixed with fresh ginger juice.
  • Duke and his shaman friend, Don Antonio, explain the ingredients used in a traditional Ayahuasca ceremony.
  • Duke applies the extract of an Amazonian tree leaf to a friend’s insect bite.
    photographs by Steven Foster
  • Duke lectures to workshop participants along the trail at ACEER.
  • A gazebo in Duke’s medicinal herb garden in Fulton, Maryland, one of the largest private herb gardens in the country.
  • Duke shows pharmacists how to use his Amazonian Ethnobotanical Dictionary along a trail at the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research (ACEER).
  • Duke applies the extract of an Amazonian tree leaf to a friend’s insect bite.
  • Duke points out a tree resin to pharmacists at ACEER.

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.

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