A thoughtful look at the life and career of the late herbalist Varro E. Tyler, Ph.D.
On August 22, 2001, the herb world lost one of its leaders, Varro E. Tyler, Ph.D. "Tip", as he was affectionately known to his friends, had returned from Austria the previous night after celebrating his fifty-fourth wedding anniversary with his wife, Ginny. Tip had his morning coffee, read the paper, then went to his desk as usual. To borrow a Shaker phrase, he was quietly and peacefully “gathered” later that morning.
Varro Eugene Tyler, Jr. was born December 19, 1926, in Auburn, Nebraska. His father was a lawyer and an amateur botanist who instilled his love and knowledge of plants in his son. When Tyler was just twelve years old, he took a job at a local apothecary under the tutelage of the owner, Mr. Long, who initiated him in “the mystery and art of the apothecary.” One of the young apprentice’s assignments was to mix ingredients for Long’s Grippe Capsules. Here Tyler became familiar with ingredients such as crystalline quinine from South America, cascara sagrada bark from the Pacific Northwest, and asafetida collected in the mountains of Afghanistan. Undoubtedly, the experience captured his imagination. His desire to enroll in chemistry courses at the University of Nebraska was put on hold by military service during World War II. Upon returning, he enrolled in the pharmacy program at the University of Nebraska. In 1947, he married a fellow undergraduate, Virginia May Demel. One of his fraternity brothers and fellow students, who did not favor the name Varro, jokingly began calling him “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too.” From that teasing emerged the name “Tip,” the nickname by which he was known for more than five decades—including by his fellow fraternity brother and friend, Johnny Carson.
In 1949, Tyler received a Bachelor of Science degree in pharmacy from the University of Nebraska. Soon after, Tyler’s primary professor, Arthur E. Schwarting, a pharmacognosist who shared Tyler’s interests in pharmacy and botany, left for the University of Connecticut. After a year of studying plant sciences at Yale on a Lilly Fellowship, Tyler followed Schwarting to Connecticut. He received his Master’s degree from the University of Connecticut in 1951, followed by a Ph.D. in pharmacognosy in 1953. His first publication was “The Separation of Ergot Alkaloids by Paper Partition Chromatography” (with A. E. Schwarting), published in the Journal of the American Pharmaceutical Association in 1952.
For the next fifteen years, most of Tyler’s publications focused on the chemistry and biological activity of fungi. He was a leading expert on ergot, a tiny fungus that occurs on rye and other grains. His professional experience included a stint as an associate professor at the University of Nebraska from 1953 to 1957. He accepted a position as associate professor and director of Drug Plant Gardens at the University of Washington from 1957 to 1961. The fungi-rich woods of the Pacific Northwest proved a perfect laboratory for his interest in mushrooms. In 1961, he was appointed professor and chair of the Department of Pharmacognosy at the University of Washington, a position he held until 1966. Opportunity for a sabbatical took Tyler and Ginny to the Institute für Biochemie der Pflanzen Deutsche Academic der Wissenschaften in Germany, from 1963 to 1964. The institution proffered an honorary doctorate on him in 2000. That initial year in Germany sparked Tyler’s interest in German phytomedicine, for which he became the recognized expert in the United States in the decades to follow.
In 1966, he accepted a position as dean of the School of Pharmacy and Pharmacal Sciences at Purdue University (later to become dean of the Schools of Pharmacy, Nursing, and Health Sciences) until 1986. Ironically, West Lafayette, Indiana, home of Purdue, is in Tippecanoe County, Indiana, the name from which his nickname was derived. Given his stellar administrative and diplomatic skills, in 1986 Purdue appointed Tyler executive vice president for academic affairs (second in command at Purdue University), a position he held until his “retirement” in 1991. From 1991 to 1997, he returned to teaching in an endowed position created for him as the Lilly Distinguished Professor of Pharmacognosy. As of January 1, 1997, he became dean and Distinguished Professor of Pharmacognosy Emeritus at Purdue.
During his long and distinguished career, Tyler produced more than 280 scientific papers and eighteen books. His books included editions of Pharmacognosy (fifth through tenth editions), the standard textbook on the subject, along with Tyler’s Honest Herbal, Herbs of Choice, and Hoosier Home Remedies. Unknown to most in the herb world, Tyler had another life as a philatelist. He was an acknowledged international expert on stamp forgeries, particularly bogus Japanese stamps, a subject on which he wrote several books.
On a personal note, I began a correspondence with Tyler in 1988. We first met at the Herbs ’89 Symposium held in San Jose, California, in July of 1989. We shared a collecting interest in the novels of pharmacist John Uri Lloyd. I knew that Tyler had a complete collection—except for one title. I happened to have two copies of that obscure novel, The Right Side of the Car, and took it to him. That first meeting solidified a friendship that I enjoyed for more than a decade. I visited Tip and Ginny several times in West Lafayette during the 1990s. My favorite beer, Pilsner Urquell, was also Tip’s favorite beer. He always had it on hand when I visited. That trivial, shared appreciation became a focal point around which we could debate sometimes-differing views on herbal philosophies.
Despite the fact that I hold no professional degree, Tyler respectfully treated me as a colleague. I was honored by Tip’s asking me to coauthor a chapter on herbs and phytomedicinals for the eleventh edition of the American Pharmaceutical Association’s Handbook of Non-Prescription Drugs. In 1997, he invited me to co-author the fourth edition of his controversial Honest Herbal, a book that had become the herbal that herbalists love to hate. It was published in 1999 under the title Tyler’s Honest Herbal. Naturally, I had submitted the manuscript with my name on the title page as the second author. When I received the published book, I was indeed surprised to see that my name came first on the cover and title page. Tyler’s only significant editorial change on the galley proofs of the book, unknown to me, was to elevate me to senior author. This speaks volumes of the kind of man Tyler was.
Tip was the consummate gentleman, always direct in his thoughts, words, and actions, deeply honest, and always respectful of others’ views. Despite achieving high professional honors, his ego was steeped in simple humility. Tyler was a gentle giant in the world of medicinal plants, whose impact toward rational herbalism will be with us for decades to come. Tip, we will miss you.
Facts on Tyler’s professional life were derived from an article by his long-time administrative assistant, Linda Michael.
Michael, Linda. “Tyler Retires: Sort of.” The Purdue Pharmacist, Summer 1997, 2–5.
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