The Father of Psychedelics? Just a Plant Guy


News flash: The psychedelic revolution of the ‘60s--which fueled perhaps the largest generational conflict in history while transforming American politics, revolutionizing music and unzipping sexuality--had its roots in one very conservative, bespectacled ethnobotanist who was more interested in higher education than higher consciousness.

This was a Bostonian who regularly voted for the Queen of England during presidential elections because he didn’t support the American Revolution of 1776. This was a man who disowned fellow Harvard professor-turned-acid-evangelist Timothy Leary. This was a teacher who one student called Victorian.

Richard Schultes--now 81 and sometimes credited with creating the field of ethnobotany, the study of plant life and its relation to culture--began his seminal research into the “psychoactive” plants of South America more than 50 years ago. Both his rediscoveries (of plants such as the psychedelic mushroom) and his own experiments with such substances (he once told novelist William Burroughs, “That’s funny, Bill, all I saw was colors”) undoubtedly influenced everyone from Leary to novelist Carlos Castaneda. All the while he maintained scientific integrity and stayed low-key.


Schultes faithfully picked through the rain forest only to unwittingly emerge with the fuel for a generation of counterculture--introducing peyote, psychedelic mushrooms and natural LSD to the Western world. He then sent another generation of ethnobotanists back into the jungle to emerge with fuel for debate about our current drug culture. But it’s only now that his story is seeping into the popular consciousness.

This is mostly thanks to his lifelong ethnobotany student, Harvard PhD Wade Davis, who recently completed six years of research and writing on the life and times of Schultes and his academic disciples.

The product is “One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest” (Simon & Schuster, 1996), a book that has received a flurry of we-are-not-worthy reviews (the New York Times called the book “hagiographic”--meaning it seems to all but deify Schultes--but goes on to say, “Unqualified praise is acceptable for someone so admirable and peerless”).

“He wasn’t of this era,” Davis, 42, says during a talk on the patio of the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood recently. “He didn’t have any interest in publicity.”

The book retraces Schultes’ pioneering paths into ethnobotany--he became one of the first scientists to write about peyote and its role in indigenous American rites. Later he launched into the lush, feral forests of Latin America in search of plant life as yet unknown in the annals of Western science.

Beginning in 1938, Schultes would dive into botanical woods only to emerge months, sometimes years, later with historic finds--including the psychedelic mushroom, which had been considered mythical until Schultes proved it really existed.


“He sparked the psychedelic era with his discoveries,” says Davis, tall and fit with sharp blue eyes that are windows to his Irish ancestry. “He wasn’t going down to take these drugs as drugs. These were sacred plants. Schultes was there to study medicinal plants.”


In 1941 Schultes disappeared into the Amazon and wasn’t seen on the Harvard campus for 12 years. Around that time he found a natural form of LSD (years before it would be synthesized in the lab by Albert Hofmann) and introduced novelist Burroughs to the natural hallucinogen “ayahuasca” (a.k.a. “yage”), which later became the subject of Burroughs’ “The Yage Letters.” After several near-death experiences, Schultes emerged from the forest having logged 300 new species of plant life.

Yet, as Davis points out, he was no fan of psychedelia.

“Schultes disowned Leary over the term ‘psychedelic,’ ” Davis says (Apparently he preferred ‘hallucinogenic.’) “And Castaneda could never get it right,” Davis says. “He misused plant names. But I’m sure he was dipping deeply into the repertoire of Schultes’ papers.”

In 1974, Davis and renowned Schultes disciple Timothy Plowman went back into the Amazon, this time to study the coca leaf and its uses among the indigenous peoples.

This second generation of research is also woven throughout the book. It reads as an indictment on the U.S. war on drugs, especially the destruction of coca fields in Colombia and other parts of South America. Davis makes it clear that the coca leaf, as it is used among Indians, is as harmless and culturally important as tea is to the English. The coca leaf is chewed often, used in religious ceremony and passed around almost as an Indian greeting. It is physiologically harmless, Davis argues. It’s only when cocaine is extracted in the forms and concentrations preferred in North America that the coca leaf becomes a health issue.

“The use of coca is a profound expression of culture in the Andes,” Davis says. “Coca was a vital part of the diet. Tim did the first nutritional study. Coca was full of vitamins, calcium, enzymes.”


He calls drug warriors’ attempts to wipe out coca fields “Draconian.”

“Western culture has no monopoly on the route to God,” Davis says. “We determine the use of stimulants as being aberrant behavior while it is quite common in other cultures and religions.”

And of course, the book’s longer strokes paint love for the Amazonian rain forest--a source of maternal life for the Earth, a place of endless biodiversity. “Preservation of the Amazon is more important than ever before,” Davis says.

The book was inspired by Plowman’s death from AIDS-related complications in 1989. Davis was entrusted to read a note sent from a frail Schultes during Plowman’s funeral. It quoted Shakespeare: “Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

“It was then, as I stood at the podium, that I decided to write a book that would tell the story of these two remarkable men,” Davis writes.

Davis, married with children and the proud owner of a fishing lodge about 1,000 miles north of Vancouver, British Columbia, turns out a rich tale that reads more like a novel. Though he’s a veteran writer, (he also wrote “The Serpent & the Rainbow,” a 1987 book about Haitian voodoo), he says it’s never easy.

“Anyone who talks about getting inspired to write is either a bad writer or a liar,” he says. “Writing is like a sculpture. You just chip away at it every day.”