Richard E. Schultes; Botanist Pioneered in Rain Forest, Hallucinogen Research
In 1947, botanist Richard Evans Schultes was traveling up an Amazon tributary in a rain-soaked, leaking barge. The plants he had collected over many weeks were rotting because he had used poor-quality formaldehyde. He was racked by a high fever, unrelenting nausea and pains in every limb--signs, he would later learn, of malaria and beriberi.
Despite these conditions, he and a few companions had coursed over rapids, surviving an encounter with a jagged rock. Constant bailing kept the rickety vessel afloat. Then, in the predawn darkness, the barge crashed into a tree, destroying the cabin. Nearly everyone on board was terrified.
Everyone, that is, but Schultes.
“With my flashlight, I saw that the tree was in young fruit, with a recently fertilized ovary . . . so I broke off a few branches to put in the press later. When dawn came,” Schultes’ journal entry said, “I examined the plant; it was Micrandra minor, which I am especially anxious to collect!”
So it went in the life of the Amazon plant explorer, who died April 10 in Boston at the age of 86. Surviving plane crashes, canoe capsizings and wretched jungle maladies, Schultes was the Indiana Jones of botany.
Although he called himself “just a jungle botanist,” he was a founding father of an entire branch of science: ethnobotany, which studies the relationships between plants and people in indigenous cultures.
During 14 years in the Amazon jungle, mainly in Colombia, he collected more than 24,000 plant specimens, including 3,500 examples of Hevea, the genus of trees that produces all of the world’s natural rubber.
He also found 2,000 plant specimens that are used as medicines or poisons. Recognized as the foremost expert on hallucinogenic and medicinal plants, he inadvertently helped spark the psychedelic age.
All of his higher education, including his doctoral study, was at Harvard, where he later became a professor. But Schultes grew up in modest circumstances. His mother worked in an office and his father installed plumbing in breweries.
When he was 7, he was confined to bed for two months with a stomach ailment. His father helped him pass the time by reading from “Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and Andes,” the journal of British botanist Richard Spruce, who had spent 15 years in South America. Spruce, who died before Schultes was born, would become his model.
After attending public schools in Boston, Schultes entered Harvard on a scholarship. In a lecture course, Biology 104, he read a slim volume about the pharmacological effects of the peyote cactus. He was entranced by the descriptions of peyote visions: luminous twinkling stars and clouds of color.
“That a plant could do such things! It was wonderful. I had to know about it,” he told former student and ethnobotanist Wade Davis, who wrote about Schultes’ odyssey in the 1996 book “One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest.”
For his senior thesis in 1937, Schultes spent a month with the Kiowa Indians of Oklahoma, who used peyote as a medicine and as a mind-altering drug. He sampled the hallucinogen himself because to refuse a taste would have been “an unpardonable rudeness.”
For his doctoral thesis in 1939, he went to northeast Oaxaca state in Mexico, where he studied the hallucinogenic mushrooms called teonanacatl. He also studied a vine related to the morning glory called ololiuqui, the seeds of which were psychoactive and produced a numbing effect when chewed. In a paper published the same year, he provided what Davis later described as “the first irrefutable evidence of a psychoactive mushroom used by Indians.”
Schultes’ work received little attention until 1953. That year, his thesis was discovered by a Morgan Guaranty Trust executive named Gordon Wasson, whose hobby was studying the role of mushrooms in European and Asian cultures.
One question Wasson had puzzled over was why some cultures revered, even worshiped, mushrooms. When he read Schultes’ thesis, he took off for Oaxaca, setting in motion a chain of events that would shape American social history.
Wasson managed with great difficulty to find a curandera who allowed him to ingest the mushrooms as part of a sacred ceremony. His description of the mystical experience was published in a Life magazine article, catchily titled “Seeking the Magic Mushrooms.” It would be read by a young Harvard lecturer named Timothy Leary, who a few years later would try the mushrooms too.
Thanks to a colleague of Wasson, samples of the ololiuqui plant were sent to the laboratory of a Swiss chemist named Albert Hofmann, who in 1943 had synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD. When Hofmann isolated the psychoactive chemicals in the seeds of the plant, he could not believe what he found: Their active ingredients were nearly identical to the compounds in LSD.
As Davis wrote: “Four years before Hofmann discovered LSD, Richard Evans Schultes had found its analog in nature, in the seeds of a humble morning glory that was worshiped as a god incarnate by the ancient peoples of central Mexico.”
Of Schultes’ 10 books, two were co-written with Hofmann, including a seminal work on hallucinogens titled “Plants of the Gods.”
In the 1950s, Schultes led the novelist and legendary drug seeker William Burroughs to yage, the “vision vine” of the northwest Amazon. Burroughs later wrote of turning into a large black woman under the influence of yage tea.
He in turn shared the hallucinogen with poet Allen Ginsberg, whose accounts of yage’s effects were similarly awe-filled. “I felt like a snake vomiting out the universe,” Ginsberg wrote. Their correspondence on the subject became “The Yage Letters,” published in 1963.
Schultes’ descriptions of his own reactions were far more temperate. In the field, he was careful to ingest no more than half of what the jungle healers prescribed. “I never got scared,” he told E.J. Kahn Jr. of the New Yorker several years ago. “I did get color reactions, like colored clouds or mists going by, but probably because I took limited dosages, I never saw visions.”
At Harvard, where he directed the botanical museum and taught until his retirement in 1985, he was venerated, particularly for his skillful demonstrations with a six-foot blowgun. He also was known for his wickedly dry humor. A conservative with a stately bearing, he disapproved of Leary and his drug experiments, taking particular exception to Leary’s spelling of “psychedelic,” which Schultes said distorted the original Greek.
In the jungle, Schultes was a regular user of coca, the plant from which cocaine is derived. Although he weaned himself off it when he returned to civilization, he never lost sight of its importance to the Amazon Indians. For them, he said, coca was almost a staple, providing the stimulation, strength and hunger suppression needed to surmount their “more or less itinerant life of deprivation.”
In later years, Schultes was a forceful defender of peyote as a sacrament in Native American religious ceremonies. His recognition that many of the plants he studied were sacred in indigenous cultures was central to his commitment to preserving the jungle, or what now is more fashionably called the rain forest. In this, too, Schultes was far ahead of the crowd.
“He appreciated the importance of the rain forest and its cultures decades before the rest of the environmental community. Now bio-cultural conservation is the cutting edge of the field,” said Mark J. Plotkin, who studied under Schultes and heads a rain forest preservation group.
“Schultes,” the former student noted, “wrote about it in the 1930s.”