Christopher Joyce, 1994, Little, Broiwn and Company, Boston.
"And it is mixed with eye-medicines, and anodynes.... It expels ye menstrua, and ye embryo, and being put up into ye seat for a suppository, it causeth sleep.... But ye new leaves are good both for ye inflammations of ye eyes, and those upon ulcers, being laid on with polenta; and they dissolve also all hardness...... Dioscorides, The Greek Herbal
"The Bora of Peru strip pieces of bark only from the lower one to two-and-a-half meters of the trunk. The hard brittle outer layer of bark is chipped off, leaving only the softer inner phloem. This layer quickly turns brown from congealed oxidized 'resin..... The resin is spread over infected areas of the skin to cure ringworm and similar dermatological problems of fungal origin which are so prevalent in the humid'tropical rainforests." Richard Schultes and Albert Hofmann, Plants of the Gods
Two thousand years separate these two prescriptions. The first, written by the Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides of Anazarbus, in Cilicia, who lived during the first century A.D. and whom history records as one of the first great medicinal botanists, describes uses for the mandrake, Atropa mandragora. The second prescription describes the use of sap from the Amazonian tree Virola. "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose". Today's plant-hunters are reviving a tradition almost as old as culture. indeed, Dioscorides and Schultes went about their business in like fashion, needing little more than a rugged constitution and a good pair of eyes. Dioscorides traveled with Nero's army as a physician. Schultes explored the Amazon for the U.S. military and the Department of Agriculture during the 1940s, looking for sources of natural rubber. Both recorded the plant lore of the cultures they encountered and returned to their own countries with plants and prescriptions to improve their own peoples' health and welfare. While plant-hunters extended the reach of medicine, few won much of the credit handed out by historians of medicine. The discovery of antibiotics, for example, was attributed to Louis Pasteur and Alexander Fleming, not to the healers in ancient Greece and Rome who discovered how certain molds stopped infections. Perhaps that is to be expected of history, whose profile is mapped like an almanac's guide to a mountain range, noting its highest peaks, not its contours. Moreover, historians of science have gravitated toward the world's great laboratories, they being more accessible than the godforsaken swamps, steppes, and tundras where medicinal botany is practiced. For it is essentially a foraging activity, followed by trial-and-error experimentation. Our culture has become a stargazing one; we fix our eyes on faraway black holes, elementary particles of matter, or the molecular structure of life itself. The chemistry of plants is in the middle distance, and studying it has rarely earned anyone wealth or fame. But remarkable in the history of medicinal plant-hunting is that, despite thousands of years of experimentation, humans have barely touched what nature has to offer. Even the known is forgotten and then rediscovered. Take the crocus, for example, one of the plants listed in Dioscorides's famous herbal. Dioscorides recommended that a species of the flower then called Ephemera, later given the Latin name Cokhicum parnassicum, be soaked with wine as a poultice for treating tumors. The plant, from the lily family, in fact contains colchicine, an alkaloid from which a powerful treatment for granulocytic leukemia is now made. Even the world's most common medicine can be traced to a decoction from the white willow that Dioscorides recommended for gout. It took eighteen hundred years for chemists to find what gave willow juice its analgesic effects. It was a compound called salicin. Salicin was modified to become salicylic acid, which was effective against skin diseases but which could not be taken internally. Eventually, in 1899, German chemists turned salicylic acid into acetylsalicylic acid. They called it aspirin. Dioscorides would have to concede that he stood on the intellectual shoulders of many plant-hunters before him. Among them were Mithridates VI Eupator (circa 131-63 B.C.), ruler of Pontus, and his physician, Cratenus. Mithridates earned the title "the Great" for challenging Rome and taking over much of what is now Asia Minor, but he also had a reputation for leamedness, having described most of the plants of his kingdom, especially poisons and their antidotes. Any monarch who knew poisons improved his odds of survival. in fact, Mithridates is said to have built up an immunity against poisons by regularly ingesting small amounts of them, and in the Middle Ages the word "mithridate" meant a potent antidote. Another fourteen hundred years back in time, an Egyptian laid down what was known then about pharmaceuticals in a document now called the Ebers Papyrus, which dates to the mid-sixteenth century, B.C. The Papyrus was bought by Egyptologist Georg Moritz Ebers in 1872 from an Arab who said the six-meter-long scroll was found between the feet of a mummy discovered at Thebes. The document included a prescription for heart disease made up of dates, bulbs of squills (Mediterranean sea onions), amamu plant, sweet beer, and tehebu tree. This was to be boiled, then strained and taken for four days. Turning the clock back another millennium, the greatest Chinese herbalist is said to have been the emperor Shen Nung, who reigned at about 2700 B.c. He left behind a book of medicine now called Pen Tsao Kang Mu, which lists 365 plant medicines. Among them was Chinese rhubarb, consisting of a few species of the genus Rheum, whose roots were used as a purge. Its fame was so widespread and durable that in sixteenth-century France such roots were worth ten times the price of cinnamon, and the plant is still cultivated and used widely in China. Plants were even considered valuable booty in wartime. According to an inscription found in what was then called Mesopotamia, the Sumerian king Sargan in about 2500 B.C. crossed over the Taurus Mountains into the heart of Asia Minor and brought back as a prize of conquest, among other valuables, trees, vines, figs, and roses for acclimatization to his own land. in a world that was largely built, fed, and medicated from the raw tissue of nature, curing plants were among the most highly prized.
There was one plant so precious to ancient Greeks and Romans that its value was said to exceed its weight in silver. It grew only in the North African city-state of Cyrene but was traded throughout the Mediterranean, and its image was carried on Cyrenian coins. Farmers tried and failed to cultivate it in Greece and Syria, and it was eventually harvested out of existence. Historians believe that the plant, called silphion by the Greeks and silphium by the Romans, may have been the ancient world's most effective oral contraceptive, either by preventing pregnancy or by inducing early-term abortion. Botanical descriptions suggest that it was a species of Ferula, or giant fennel. Extracts of related species such as Ferula assa-foetida, which grows in North Africa, and F. jaeschkaena have been shown in experiments with rats to prevent implantation of fertilized ova from 40 to almost 100 percent of the time. Ironically, some of history's most valued medicinal plants belonged to the pharmacopoeias of women, who were for the most part excluded from t e official practice of medicine. Women certainly had their own herbal treatments, especially for those needs exclusively female. Among the plants taken to prevent pregnancy or induce abortions were juniper, rue, pennyroyal, squirting cucumber, artemisia, and Queen Anne's lace. Some of these are toxic, pennyroyal lethally so, and may have induced abortions simply because of that. Whether others were more efficient is difficult to tell since both abortions and accounts of how to perform them have been suppressed for so long. The earliest evidence of a female pharmaceutical practice harks back to the sixth century A.D. The physician's name was Metrodora, and she left for history's edification a record known as the Metrodora text: an alphabetical listing of cures, aphrodisiacs, and beauty tips. Translated by classics scholar Holt Parker at the University of Cincinnati, the text includes the following prescription for a contraceptive: "One dram pomegranate flower, four drams pomegranate peel, two drams oak gall, one dram wormwood. Make everything smooth, take up in cedar oil and after giving her a douche after her period, apply for two days and after another day let her have intercourse, but not before. This is infallible; based on much experience." Metrodora's materia medica includes treatments for uterine cancer, infections and diseases of the breast, infertility, difficult childbirth, keeping breast size small, and restoring the appearance of virginity, the latter a procedure that nowadays would no doubt require hefty malpractice insurance. Regardless of sex, healers have always had a special place in society. in primitive societies, there often were hierarchies of healers, not unlike the specialists that have subdivided modern medicine. At the apex of the order stood the shaman. The word shaman derives from the Tungus culture of Siberia, and, technically, it is in Siberia and central Asia that shamanism has been known the longest to ethnographers. The shaman, says the French scholar and historian of religion Mircea Eliade, "is the man who knows and remembers, that is, who understands the mysteries of life and death." In a worldview that separates the universe into the sacred and the profane, the shaman is the link with the sacred, and his primary role is, in essence, as a technician of ecstacy.
While societies have their priests, their magicians, and their healers, the shaman stands above them in that only he (traditionally shamans are male) can transport his soul from his body and ascend to the sky or to the underworld, where he can communicate with the spirits whose invisible hands shape the turning world. Shamans are thus,separated from their societies in the intensity of their own religious experience; indeed, they are not so much officers of a religion as they are a mystical elite. Shamanism spread throughout the world, and although variations have arisen spontaneously, its basic nature remained the same from Asian steppe to Amazonian rainforest. Anthropologist Michael J. Harner, who started studying shamanistic customs in South America in the 1950s, describes the shaman of South America's forest-dwelling people as a man "who is in direct contact with the spirit world through a trance state and has one or more spirits at his command to carry out his bidding for good or evil. Typically shamans bewitch persons with the aid of spirits or cure persons made ill by other spirits...... Among other things, shamans find lost or stolen objects, identify people who have committed crimes, or foretell the future. South American shamanism contains some of the most archaic characteristics of the phenomenon: initiation of the shaman through inheritance or through a personal quest, belief that illness is caused by intrusion of a magical object in the patient requiring a suctioning of these invisible objects out of a patient's body, and sometimes the loss of the soul from illness. Even the symbols of shamanism echo each other around the world. The South American shaman drinks a brew from the liana, or vine, Banisteriopsis. its hallucinogenic powers are his vehicle to heaven, and the vine's form is sometimes described as a ladder up which the shaman ascends to find knowledge. On the other side of the world, the Altaic shaman of central Asia ritually climbs a birch tree in which steps have been cut, each one representing a stage of heaven through which he must pass.
In order to treat the sick, shamans often employ plants in either or both of two ways. First, they may administer plant medicines directly to their patients, although this task is often shared with others who are not shamans but are trained in a culture's herbalism. In some cultures, a patient will go to a herbalist first, and if that course of action fails, to a shaman for stronger medicine. The second and principal skill of a shaman, however, is to intervene in the spirit world. This requires magical and often hallucinogenic plants, such as mushrooms, cactus, or any of the myriad vines and barks with alkaloids found in South America. The ingestion of hallucinogens may be accompanied by the beating of drums, fasting, drinking of alcohol, smoking of tobacco, or chanting. While under the influence of these plants, the shaman experiences visions ' and may do battle with spirits or even voyage to the world of the dead to retrieve a sick person's soul. In some cultures, such as the Jivaro of Ecuador, the daily world one sees is believed to be a lie, while the true world is the supernatural realm experienced while under the influence of magical plants. As pastoral society began to replace nomadic life, the importance of shamans dwindled. The ascendancy of new religious themes, such as ancestor worship and multiple divinities, and the eventual rise of the organized church ultimately pushed shamanism and the use of intoxicating plants into obscurity and disrepute. During the Middle Ages, it was witches and sorcerers, not respected healers, who prepared strange brews and ointments from the likes of belladonna, henbane, and the mandrake root, and usually for ill purpose. In Europe, the mandrake was believed to have the power to kill just by being pulled from the ground. In New England, witches were suspected of using a fungus, ergot, to induce mass hallucinations. Even though powerful plants continued to be the source of medicines, their connectedness to things spiritual dissolved. Perhaps the desire to enter so directly into contact with the sacred was overwhelmed by the fear of renouncing the simple human condition. In any event, the eighteenth century's age of reason, or the Enlightenment, as Inimanuel Kant dubbed it, further buried the spiritual role of medicinal and magical plants. It rolled over mythology and folklore on the wheels of universal doctrines like Newton's Principia Mathematics. The universe now had knowable rules and empirical scientific methods employing observations and experimentation with which to discover those rules. The workings of the body were seen as mechanisms and there was no room for the likes of shamanistic healing. Official medicine nonetheless helped itself to the collective experience of folk medicine and appropriated it frequently. An example was the "discovery" of digitalis, a potent heart medicine still used today. It comes from a little garden plant commonly called foxglove. After serving as an underground remedy for centuries, it got a proper coming out from a country doctor in Shropshire in the late 1780s. William Withering, a prot6g6 of Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, began practicing medicine in the midland town of Stafford in 1766. Withering was an amateur botanist who was fortunate in having come to adulthood after 1753, when the Swedish naturalist Carl von Linn6, or Carolus Linnaeus, published the seminal work of botanical science, the Species Plantarum. if it is true that to know something you must first name it, then Linnaeus made the plant kingdom knowable. He organized plants into a hierarchical system based on paired Latin names, known as binomials, and laid the groundwork for the science of taxonomy, the system for describing the kinds and diversity of organisms and the relationships between them. Inspired by Linnaeus, Withering studied plants as well as medicine: physicians were not blind to the fact that useful medicines might sometimes be found among the clutter of newt's tongue and yew bark. Among the ailments Withering commonly treated was dropsy, an accumulation of body fluid in cells or body cavities (now called edema, usually caused by congestive heart failure, the inability of the heart to pump blood at sufficient pressure). In Withering's time, neither cause nor cure was known. In 1775, Withering treated a woman with dropsy but advised her family that she probably would not survive. When she recovered weeks later, Withering asked the patient's family how this had transpired and was told that she had taken a secret potion prepared by an old woman in Shropshire who practiced herbal medicine. Withering investigated and found the potion to contain about twenty herbs, one of which, his botanical eye told him, was probably the cure: a lovely biennial with purple, trumpet-shaped flowers hanging from a spike. it was foxglove, common all over England and Europe. Linnaeus had called it Digitalis purpurea, though it was commonly called "dead man's bells" in Scotland, and in Wales, "goblin's gloves." It often caused vomiting and purging, and was a diuretic. Overdoses were common and sometimes fatal. Withering found that the leaves were the most potent and should be picked when the plant was in full flower in its second and final year of life. In his mansion in Birmingham, he would dry his leaves over a fire and grind them into a fine powder. The powder could be taken safely in doses of a grain or two (an aspirin contains five grains) and would eliminate the swellings that accompanied dropsy. At the time, Withering did not realize that foxglove actually did nothing for the underlying cause of dropsy, but for patients who suffered its depredations, that hardly mattered. Withering published his findings in 1785 and became an international sensation. He never knew exactly how foxglove worked, only that it seemed to have some power over the motion of the heart. it remained to others over the next two centuries to find that the compound in foxglove, called digitalis, was a cardiac glycoside. It increased the force of systolic contractions and lowered venous pressure in hypertensive heart ailments. The dried leaves are still used today in capsules or pills for heart patients, as well as other more powerful compounds from the digitalis leaf such as digitoxin. For many years, most digitalis came from a farm in the Pennsylvania countryside operated by the company S. B. Penick, one of the leading sources of plantbased drugs in the United States. Cardiac glycosides are only one of many phytochemicals chemicals from plants that have medicinal value. The largest group are the alkaloids. These are a large class of phytochemicals that always contain a nitrogen atom and are so named because they are alkali-like, or basic. over four thousand are known, and about 20 percent of all vascular plants contain at least one alkaloid. A single plant species may contain fifty different alkaloids. They range from the relatively benign, like caffeine, to the more stimulating, like cocaine from the coca plant, to the addictive morphine of the opium poppy and nicotine from tobacco. it is believed that most alkaloids are secondary compounds that is, they appear not to be required for a plant's essential functions and they are heavily represented in the tropics one study found that 45 percent of tropical plants have them where year-round attacks from the host of insects, fungi, and bacteria is the norm. The most famous alkaloids are those that act along the neurological divide that splits pleasure and pain. Like fire, they are gifts of nature that carry a high price. Opium was first described by a Greek, Theophrastus, a disciple of Aristotle who wrote a history of plants. Some four hundred years later, Dioscorides explained how opium was derived from the heads of the poppy plant. A few days after the petals fall, a green pod about two inches high and equally thick develops that, when gently slit, causes the pod to exude a milky juice that is crude opium. Dioscorides prescribed it for pain and insomnia but warned that too much will make the imbiber lethargic or kill him. Galen, the great Greek-born physician of the second century (known for his axiom "Nature does nothing in vain"), treated several emperors with opium.
In 1753, Linnaeus gave the species from Asia Minor, the only one that produces the drug, its current scientific name, Papaver somniferum the sleep maker. By then it had already cut a swath through Europe. The Swiss chemist Paracelsus in the sixteenth century helped popularize it when he created a tincture of opium with alcohol, which he called laudanum. In Britain, it was the secret of Dover's powder, a medicine that British buccaneer Thomas Dover, captain of the H.M.S. Duke (and famed rescuer of "Robinson Crusoe") foisted on the public. To a poet like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, opium could be the inspiration for fantastic visions, but at great personal expense. The ghostly passenger that sailed the derelict death-ship across a windless sea in his "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" might well have been Coleridge's lament on his own addiction: "Her lips were red, her looks were free / Her locks were yellow as gold: / Her skin was white as leprosy, / The Nightmare Lifein-Death was she, / Who thicks man's blood with cold." Opium, however, led to anesthetics. Moreover, it was the raw material for a young chemist to whom the credit for isolating and characterizing alkaloids must go. Twenty-year-old pharmacist's assistant Frederich Wilhelm Adam Sertiirner, from the village of Paderborn in Germany, isolated the compound in opium that gave it its power. He called this alkali-like substance morphium, now known as morphine. With what Sertilrner revealed in 1803 about the chemical nature of this alkaloid, drug hunters could better guide their search for valuable plants by testing them for alkaloids. in short order, the pure alkaloids in numerous useful plants were found and replaced the crude extracts from which they came: strychnine in 1817, caffeine in 1820, nicotine in 1828, atropine in 1833, and cocaine in 1855. Sertiirner had sowed the seed from which modern pharmacology grew. As scientists were unraveling the secret chemical life of plants, explorers in the tropics continued to bring back new and ever more exotic flora for them to puzzle over. From the New World, one of the most extraordinary was the rubber tree, Hevea. In 1736, the French explorer Charles Marie de La Condamine arrived in Esmeraldas, in what is now Ecuador, on a mission to measure the curvature of the Earth. While his companions proceeded to Quito by a traditional route from the port of Guayaquit, La Condamine, encouraged by friend and fellow adventurer Don Pedro Vicente Maldonado, governor of Esmeraldas Province, decided to investigate the coastal villages first. It was the Frenchman's first experience with equatorial rainforests, and he wrote with astonishment of the variety of life he encountered. He collected plants for his colleague Joseph de Jussieu, the botanist on his expedition, as he canoed up rivers to visit the Tsachali, who still paint their bodies head to toe with red dye as La Condamine described them. Among the forest products he encountered was an amazing substance called caoutchouc, a cloth that stretched and was waterproof. Esmeraldans showed him how they tapped the rubber tree and drew out a viscous, white milk that they called jebe, which was poured between shaped plantain leaves and then left to solidify into almost any shape. La Condamine had a rubber pouch made for his scientific instruments, which bore up well when he and Maldonado made an arduous trip up the Rio Esmeraldas to Quito. Although rubber and the latex-bearing trees had been reported by earlier Spanish explorers, it was La Condamine who took rubber samples back to Europe and who performed the first scientific experiments on it. It was killer plants that most intrigued the first explorers in the New World, however. As long as there has been poison, men have endeavored to find ways to deposit it in prey or enemy (although apothecaries knew that poisons in small doses could cure as well as kill). Take the word toxic, meaning poisonous. It comes from the Greek word toxon, which means "bow" or "bow and arrow." The Greek toxicon was a poison in which arrows were dipped. The Greeks did not invent the idea of poisoned projectiles, however. They probably learned from the Scythians, an earlier nomadic people who established themselves around the Black Sea about three thousand years ago. They were said to have mixed snake venom with human blood and smeared the concoction on their arrow points. Earlier still are written Sanskrit references from the Vedic period in India, three and a half thousand years ago, that banned poisoned weapons. Archaeologists have pushed the practice still further back in time, to the last Ice Age, when bone blades bore carved notches or grooves that are believed to have carried poison into wounds. In Europe, aconite, also known as wolfsbane or monkshood, a plant with blue, purple, yellow, or white flowers shaped like hoods, contains an alkaloid called aconitine that slows the action of the heart and may have served as an arrow poison. The personal physician of Roman emperor Claudius I is credited with using this fast-acting poison to kill his royal patient. Another ancient killer was the plant hellebore, the common name for Veratrum, which grows in swampy areas and has distinctively ribbed leaves and small, star-shaped flowers. Parts of the plant are now used as an insecticide. That artful collector of myths and practices, William Shakespeare, described a veritable bouillabaisse of poisons in the cauldron prepared by the three witches in Macbeth. Their recipe included eye of newt, toe of frog, adder's fork, blind-worm's sting, a toad kept under a rock for thirty-one days and nights, filet of snake, and root of hemlock. One ingredient, "slips of yew," returns us to the Greek toxon, for not only were the yew tree's red fruits poisonous, its wood was the favorite of English bow-makers. But the floral armamentarium of Europe and Asia paled next to what the tropics' biodiversity had to offer. Explorer David Livingstone reported in the nineteenth century that East Africans tipped their hunting weapons with juice from Strophanthus, from the family of plants that ives us periwinkle and oleander. Yet another heart medicine with 9 a digitalis-like action came from the African arrow poison ouabain, known to its users as wabayo or ouabaio. it works even faster and in smaller quantities than digitalis. And from West Africa, in the southeastern corner of Nigeria, missionaries came across an unusual plant near the seaport of Calabar. Indigenous people who lived in its upland regions called the plant esere. It was a woody vine growing about twenty meters long with small, pink flowers, and was used as an ordeal poison. A prisoner accused of a crime was made to drink a brew made from the kidney-shaped Calabar bean. if he died, then he was, of course, guilty. If he vomited, or somehow survived, he was innocent. Scientists named the plant Physostigma venenosum, and isolated the alkaloid physostigmine from it. It can be effective against the eye disease glaucoma or myasthenia gravis, a progressive, wasting neuromuscular disease, and led to a synthetic drug, neostigmine, with a host of medical uses. As for indigenous peoples of the Americas, they dispatched game and each other with diabolically inventive concoctions. Philip Smith, in his book on curare, describes a practice of the Dakota Indians that began by pinning down a rattlesnake with a forked stick and allowing it to sink its fangs into the liver of a deer. The liver was then wrapped in hide and buried for a week until it rotted. Dug up and dried, it was mixed with blood and dried once more. A paste from this foie gras vip@rin served for both warfare and for hunting. South American Indians were no less imaginative, having at their disposal a much wider variety of sources, including not just plants but venomous animals too. The Cholo Indians of Colombia, for example, dipped their blowgun darts in the excretions from the skin of a yellow and black striped frog, one they called kokoa. Travelers with Columbus's second expedition to the Americas in 1493 may have been the first Europeans to experience South American poison-tipped projectiles. An account of the voyage published in 1553 in London, based on the writing of a German monk and geographer, Sebastian Miinster, described a battle in the Caribbean islands in which one of Columbus's sailors perished from a poisoned arrow. A similar report appeared in Pietro Maitre d'Anghera's De Orbo Novo, published in Spain in 1516, describing the death of a soldier by arrow, from which a liquid substance oozed when extracted from the corpse. Farther south, one of Ferdinand Magellan's men was killed in Patagonia, now Argentina, by a poisoned arrow. What these poisons were actually made from was not easily discemed. During Sir Walter Raleigh's voyage ascending the Orinoco in 1595 in what is now Venezuela, the expedition came upon a tribe of people called the Aroras. The trip's historian, Richard Hakluyt, described pitched battles during which those wounded endured "the most insufferable torments in the wound, and abideth a most ugly and lamentable death, sometimes dying stark mad, sometimes their bowels breaking out of the bellies, which are presently discoloured as blacke as pitch, and so unsavoury as no man can endure to cure, or to attend them." No Spaniard knew of a cure, and few Indians either, said Hakluyt, who wrote that there nonetheless were "soothsayers and priests who do conceale it, and only teach it but from the father to the son." Like so many others from the age, this account could not be confirmed, as Hakluyt no doubt knew. But the story, and some preparations from poisonous herbs that Raleigh's group brought back to England, launched a legend that lasted 350 years. When its secret was finally revealed, it became one of the most famous rainforest drugs ever found. The legend's name came from a young lieutenant of Raleigh's, Lawrence Keymis, who published a book about what at the time was called Guiana. He described poisonous herbs the party had encountered, including one called ourari. Ourari's reputation grew, and along with it the number of its pursuers. La Condamine collected specimens of what he called curare and described its use by a people on the Amazon River called the Yameos, who could bag game with blowguns from as far as forty paces. "They cover the points of these little arrows, as well as those used with the bow, with a poison so active that, when it is fresh, it will kill in less than a minute any animal whose blood it has entered," La Condamine wrote. He noted that there was no danger in eating the flesh of animals so killed. "The poison only kills if it enters the blood; but is no less mortal to man than to animals. The antidote is salt, but of safe dependence, sugar." The Frenchman assayed a few of his own experiments with this curare. With Brazil's colonial governor and a physician among the observers, La Condamine wounded a chicken with a dart he had been given by an Amazonian thirteen months before. The bird died in less than ten minutes. For a test of the supposed antidote, he wound ed another chicken, this time with fresh curare, then forced sugar down its throat. it died anyway. When La Condamine returned to Europe, he repeated his demonstrations before eminent doctors and scientists. He never proved that sugar worked as an antidote, but he dined out on the story often enough, and the supplies of curare he brought back served as the first material European physicians could experiment with. La Condamine was of little help discerning the source of curare, however; he reported only that one Amazonian group from whom he got the poison, the Ticunas, used about thirty different herbs and roots to make it. The most important ones, he said, appeared to be vines.
In that assessment, La Condamine was correct. It was enough of a clue for Friedrich Wilhelm Karl Heinrich Alexander, Baron von Humboldt, the tireless engine of early-nineteenth-century natural history, to track down the likely vines. Von Humboldt arrived in South America with his partner, botanist Aim6 Bonpland in 1799. He spent over three years wandering the continent, from Mount Chimborazo in the Ecuadorean Andes, where the altitude made his eyes and gums bleed, to the meandering switchbacks of the Orinoco River. It was near the Orinoco that he claimed to have located the source of curare. At the settlement of Esmeralda in Venezuela, he found native people who had collected lianas to make the poison. He observed a brujo, or healer, as he prepared the secret substance with what von Humboldt noted was "that self-sufficient air and tone of pedantry of which the pharmacopolists of Europe were formerly accused." indeed, the brujos sneered at the white man's hunting weapons. Von Humboldt quoted one as saying that "the whites have the secret ... of manufacturing the black powder that has the defect of making a loud noise when used in killing animals." Curare, the brujo pointed out, is superior because "it kills silently, without anyone knowing from whence the stroke comes."
The German explorer noted that the vine was pounded into fibers to make a yellow, runny mush, which was poured into a funnel of rolled palm and plantain leaves. Water was added, then allowed to evaporate until the material was as thick as molasses. "There is no danger in tasting it," von Humboldt wrote, "the curare being dangerous only when it comes in immediate contact with the blood stream." When mixed with the juice of another plant, the material turned black and sticky enough to adhere to darts and arrows. Von Humboldt took some back to Europe and the laboratories of armchair chemists as La Condamine had done. Physiologists, who had already poisoned all manner of animals with it, found that it would first stupefy and then asphyxiate its victims. As for how it worked, they had no idea. Von Humboldt failed to make a botanical identification of the crucial vines, so the hunt continued. Next to add to its lore was the explorer Charles Waterton. Waterton was a rough-and-ready Yorkshireman like Spruce but disdained science and the trappings of intellectualism, traveling barefoot through the forests of northeastern South America and bringing back numerous specimens of plants and animals that he had shot. The latter he stuffed and preserved, often reassembling their parts in unusual configurations and naming them after British gentlemen he disliked. In British Guiana, Waterton observed indigenous people (the Macousis) making curare from lianas. The Macousis added stinging ants to their brew, the fangs of the fer-de-lance viper, pepper, and cuttings from a vine and a bitter root. For the most part, the process was much the same as what von Humboldt had seen. Waterton took some of this curare back to England and to Benjamin Collins Brodie, a Wiltshire physician who already had tried curare on guinea pigs and cats. Waterton and Brodie administered this new curare on a donkey, a report of which made the rounds of the medical cognoscenti of the time and delivered the two of them a small measure of fame. The poison, which they called by the Guianese name for the essential vine, wourali, was administered in the animal's shoulder. The donkey collapsed and stopped breathing in a matter of minutes. Brodie made an incision in its windpipe and kept its lungs going for two hours with a bellows, at which point the donkey sat up. When Waterton lay down the bellows, the donkey collapsed again. Eventually, the poison wore off and the donkey survived, to be renamed Wouralia and put out to pasture as a reward for her contribution to science. One other explorer in the early nineteenth century added a crucial chapter to the curare saga. Sir Robert Hermann Schomburgk, a Prussian who adopted England as his home and became one of its leading naturalists, covered some of the same ground in British Guiana as did Waterton, though with a finer knowledge of what plants to look for. During the early 1830s, he trekked into the forest with an Indian guide who promised to show him the vine used to make the poison. Indeed he did, but it was not in flower, making its botanical identification tentative. it had a crooked stem, about as thick as a man's forearm, with rough, ashen bark and thin branches that climbed into the trees. Its leaves were dark green and it produced a berry about the size of an apple, of a bluish-green color and filled with a jelly-like pulp. Schomburgk decided it must belong to the genus Strychnos (which is now known to contain over three hundred species), and named it Strychnos toxifera. Denied permission to watch a shaman prepare curare from it, he boiled some of the bark down himself and succeeded in killing a chicken with it in half an hour. It was the first time a European had personally pinpointed a botanical source of curare.
By Schomburgk's time, the remarkable medical potential of tropical plants had taken hold of Western science's imagination. indeed, explorers were then on the trail of a plant that, if not as mysterious as curare, was certainly more valuable, perhaps the most valuable medicine ever to come from nature. The longest and most exhaustive plant-hunt in the world began in what is now Ecuador. Driving the hunt was the world's most sedulous killer and crippler, malaria, a disease that over the centuries had taken more victims than the plague, pneumonia, or influenza. The tree that could cure it, or at least palliate its symptoms, was Cinchona. Its name comes from the oft-told but unverified story of Europeans' first encounter with it, in the person of an ailing countess and her doctor. The woman was the Countess of Chinchon, Dora Francisca Henriquez de Rivera, wife of the Viceroy Don Geronimo Fernandez de Cabrera, Bobadilla y Mendoza, Conde de Chinchon, who governed Peru from 1629 to 1639. Like many who made South America their home, the countess contracted fever, a catch-all term that usually meant malaria. During the countess's time, no one could have known that it was caused by a protozoan in the stomach of the female Anopheles mosquito. There was no known cure, although physicians were fond of bleeding patients to loose their patients' ill humors. To his everlasting credit, the countess's physician, Juan del Vega, was open-minded enough to try a treatment known in the province of Quito (later to become part of Ecuador) as the "quina bark." He and the ailing countess dispatched themselves to the city of Loja, where, as the story has been recounted over the centuries, the lady's fever abated after drinking a brew made with the bark. (The doubt that has been cast on this story stems from research suggesting that the countess never lived in South America.) The bark reputedly was an ancient Andean cure for intermittent fevers prevalent there, yet no historian had observed local people using it. One account held that the Quichua Indians had learned of its effectiveness from jaguars, who cured themselves of fevers by gnawing on the bark of the quina tree. Not that indigenous medical traditions would have made much difference to quinine's lineage; as was and still is common practice, the bark was only deemed to have been "discovered" when Europeans first used it. In any event, it became known as "Countess's bark" in Europe. Among its promoters was a Cardinal de Lugo, Procurator-General of the order of the Jesuits, who spoke of the remedy during a journey through France and recommended it to his superiors. Thenceforth, the Jesuits began a lively trade in quina bark from South America, which they obtained from their missionaries. "Countess's bark" soon became "Jesuit's bark" or "Jesuit's powder." The new name was an unfortunate choice, for Protestants despised most everything espoused by the Jesuits, and Protestant Europe and England shunned the bark as a Catholic fetish. No fetish, cinchona was in fact the first specific remedy for a specific disease, and probably worth more to the world than all the gold and silver brought back by the Spanish from the New World. Ironically, it was a quack who finally popularized it. Robert Talbor was an apothecary's assistant, like Sertiirner, the German discoverer of morphine, but no scholar or chemist, just a clever opportunist. He earned himself a reputation as a healer of the ague in the late 1660s in London. He called himself a "pyretiatro," or feverologist, and cured his patients, mostly the high-paying aristocracy, with a secret remedy. Nothing would induce him to reveal the ingredients, but, like Brier Rabbit pleading not to be thrown into the briar patch, he insisted that it contained none of that foul and dangerous Jesuit's powder. This was good enough for King Charles 11, who came down with malaria and called on the famous miracle healer. Talbor's medicine relieved the King's symptoms, much to the dismay of the upright Royal College of Physicians, and Talbor soon became Sir Charles. With England conquered, he moved on to France at the request of King Louis XIV, who with his son was suffering from the fever. Talbor promptly cured the both of them, and the Sun King made Talbor a very rich man. But he extracted a promise in return: Talbor would tell him the ingredients, which would be held in confidence until Talbor's death. Talbor agreed and returned to England, his reputation enlarged as the man who saved two kings, but died shortly thereafter, at age forty. Louis immediately revealed the secret: rose water, lime juice, wine ... and Jesuit's powder. Cinchona's Catholic stigma soon fell before the intense demand for the Peruvian bark. Over the next 150 years, a huge trade in bark developed. Meanwhile, chemists sought to find the substance in the bark that performed this medical miracle. In 1820, two Frenchmen, Pierre-Joseph Pelletier and Joseph-Bienaime Caventou, isolated the compound, another alkaloid. They called it quinine, after the bark quina. The cinchona story took a turn back to Ecuador in the midnineteenth century. By then, harvesting was literally outstripping supply and cinchona bark began to grow scarce. At the same time, Europe's empire-builders were creating an ever-greater demand as they sent their soldiers and administrators out to subdue and manage tropical colonies. What they needed were seeds to grow in those colonies, seeds from the very best plants. Such seeds, it was said, came only from the slopes of the northern Andes. Many explorers already had tried unsuccessfully to secure cinchona seeds. La Condamine and his botanist de Jussieu acquired a large cache of seeds that de Jussieu intended to take back to Europe, but these were stolen in 1761, and the two explorers were only able to describe the tree to the French Acad6mie. The Spanish had similarly bad luck. In 1777, explorers Hip6lito Ruiz, Jose Pav6n, and Jose Dombey gathered samples and an exhaustive record of Andean cinchona, only to have it lost at sea. Shipwreck was listed as the cause of the loss, according to Margaret Krieg's account in her book Green Medicine, but the collection turned up almost a century later in the British Museum, suggesting that the seeds had been hijacked by British pirates. And von Humboldt and Bonpland, never ones to pass up a legend, found cinchona trees during their trips across the continent. Von Humboldt's descriptions of the leaves and distribution of the tree were highly valued. His warning that if South America did not conserve the quina tree, "this highly esteemed product of the New World will be swept from the country," was not. Chance in the cinchona hunt finally favored the most prepared mind-the itinerant Briton, Spruce. In 1859, he was in semiretirement in a mountain village in Peru, nursing a body ravaged by eight years of wilderness living in the service of tropical botany. A letter arrived asking hi.-n to proceed to Ecuador to collect the seeds of cinchona, the Red Bark tree, or cascarilla roja, as the local people called it. Duty to country, like quiet suffering and afternoon tea, was the very pith of Britons like Spruce: of course he agreed. The job almost killed him. it did kill Spruce's most beloved companion during the first leg of the journey. His dog, Sultan, went mad after the entire party was capsized in a rapids on the Rio Huallaga, and Spruce had to shoot him. The botanist grieved the loss no less, however, than the destruction of the plant specimens he had collected along the way. The expedition had turned northwest onto the broad expanse of the Rio Pastaza, and for two hundred miles Spruce and his hired Quichua fought a six-knot current in their twelve-meter-long dugout canoe. The lowest ebb came when he had to placate his companions, who were not only physically spent but querulous over Spruce's inhuman attachment to the heavy bales of rotting plant specimens and bags of paper for pressing them that the Briton insisted on bringing. They frequently threatened to quit the expedition and leave him stranded until, several days from the next village and reduced to boiling a few fruits with the rest of their sugar for a meal, Spruce relented and surrendered the supply of paper that he used to press his plants. He noted with chagrin how gleefully the Quichua danced around the bonfire they made of it. After three hundred kilometers, the explorers saw the great volcanos of Sangay and Cotopaxi and the summit of Chimborazo high above the treetops. The group walked from the Rio Pastaza to the settlement of Canelos, where Spruce met his first Jivaro headhunters. They turned out to be quite friendly and open, true to Spruce's rule of thumb that the "shirtless Indians," those least influenced by Europeans, were the most honorable. They showed him what they called varvascu, the roots of a plant used to stun fish. He studied and named the vine Banisteriopsis, the vine of the souls used to make the holy hallucinogen ayahuasca and the subject of Schultes's studies a century later. The Jivaro directed the party to a path along the Pastaza, where they set out for the last leg of the trip to Bafios. This was the most difficult part of the journey. In his journal, Spruce wrote: "June 26 Rain again from midnight, but about nine in the morning it abated so much as to allow us to get under way. Road dreadful, what with mud, fallen trees, and dangerous passes, of which two in particular, along declivities where in places there was nothing to get hold of, are not to be thought of without a shudder." Food was scarce, and at several junctures Spruce overheard his Quichua companions debate whether to turn back and leave Spruce to find his own way. To botany's everlasting benefit, they did not, and the exhausted expedition finally dragged itself into Baflos in July. From Bafios Spruce made his expeditions through the cold Andean paramos, or high plateaus, to explore for cinchona. In forests that clung to the Andes between three thousand and ten thousand feet, where rain and mist shrouded the slopes almost constantly, Spruce found seeds and young plants of a superior race of quina tree, a species called Cinchona succirubra. The trees, with their startling ruby-red bark, had been preserved by local Quichua and colonists, who sold the bark. They believed that it was used in Europe as a coffee or chocolate-colored dye. "I explained to the people," Spruce wrote, "how it yielded the precious quinine which was of such vast use in medicine; but I afterwards heard them saying one to another, 'it is all very well for him to stuff us with such a tale; of course, he won't tell us how the dye is made, or we should use it ourselves ... and not let foreigners take away so much of it.' " Spruce was not the only agent in the international conspiracy to corner the quinine market. Five years before Spruce's hunt for cinchona seeds, Dutch entrepreneurs had sent a naturalist, Justus C. Hasskarl, to South America for the same treasure. Hasskarl, posing as a tourist, collected seeds of C. calisayas in Bolivia and sent them to planters in the Dutch colonies in Java to start plantations. The trees they produced, however, were almost devoid of quinine. British planters in India had much the same experience with Spruce's seeds. The succirubra that he risked his life to collect and send to India turned out to be rich in alkaloids but rather poor in quinine, only about 3 percent, too little to be worthwhile. It was in fact almost by accident that plant-hunters finally succeeded in securing a renewable supply of cinchona. The credit goes to an Englishman who lived on the shores of Lake Titicaca in Peru, Charles Ledger, and his Indian cascarillero, or bark collector, Manuel Incra Mamani. Ledger was a trader in cinchona bark, and knew as well as Mamani which trees were the most potent. He asked Mamani to gather seeds from one particularly fecund source, a forest in Bolivia near the headwaters of the Rio Beni. Manuel refused and left, but returned four years later with six kilos of the tiny seeds -at about one hundred thousand seeds to the ounce, enough to plant a whole country. He was subsequently arrested for exporting this national resource and thrown in jail, where he eventually died. Ledger, however, had by then sent the seeds to his brother George in London, who offered them to the British government. His timing was terrible. The government had just failed again, embarrassingly, to get seeds from South America to grow into cinchona-bearing trees, and declined the offer. George Ledger went to Holland and offered the six kilos of seed to the Dutch, who bought half a kilo. Ledger finally sold the rest to a British planter from India. The British planter sold the seeds in India to colleagues who tried to grow them. They never germinated. The Dutch, however, had better luck in Java. In 1872, cuttings from the young trees' bark proved to contain 10 to 12 percent quinine, three times the usual amount. The Dutch set about locking up one of the biggest pharmaceutical trades in history. First, horticulturalists isolated the Ledger trees to make sure no other cinchona trees cross-pollinated with the superior strain, which they called Cinchona ledgeriana. They grafted Ledger seedlings onto some of the roots of Spr-uce's more vigorous variety. Seeds were harvested and distributed to planters, who were encouraged to grow cinchona instead of tea and coffee. The plantations soon became the world's principal source of quinine and the Dutch had themselves a monopoly that lasted until World War 11. Then, the invention of DDT to kill mosquitoes lowered the incidence of malaria and the need for quinine. Also, two synthetic drugs were created that treated the symptoms of malaria (neither quinine nor any of its replacements can cure the disease) as effectively as quinine. Still, the demand for cinchona continued to fuel international intrigue. In 1942, Java and its plantations fell to Japan, which cut off the Allies from much of their quinine supply. So the U.S. government sent botanists to Colombia to set up a bark-harvesting system. More than a dozen species were known to grow in the Andes, each with different quinine content. it turned out, however, that the need for seed would be filled through stealth. in the early 1920s, Americans in the Philippines had paid a smuggler to bring them seeds of cinchona from Java and a plantation had been started in the province of Mindanao. When the Japanese were closing in on the Philippines in 1942, a U.S. intelligence officer with the Luzon Force, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Fischer, hatched a plan to take out as much bark and seeds from this plantation as possible. The U. S. military dispatched a B 17 Flying Fortress to rescue key Philippine personnel, one of whom was Fischer carrying a bagful of seeds. These made their way back to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and thence to plantations in Central and South America. Quinine was finally synthesized by two American scientists, William E. Doering of Columbia University and Robert B. Woodward of Harvard, in 1944. It was too expensive a process to be commercialized, but it led the way for more synthetic drugs that, while lacking the ability to cure malaria, now control various stages of the disease.
While most of the European medical establishment had dismissed the "primitive" lore of New World peoples, explorers like La Condamine, von Humboldt, Waterton, Schomburgk, and Spruce were more openminded. They not only revealed a new botanical realm but a world of healers and shamans who knew the tropical pharmacopoeia. They joined botany with anthropology, and in so doing inspired future generations of medicine-hunters to study tropical forests and their inhabitants. True, the flora of the temperate world had delivered the likes of morphine, codeine, colchicin (an anti-inflammatory from the plant Colchicum autumnale), aspirin, digitalis, and a handful of other useful medicines. It was the equatorial tropics, however, with their breathtaking biodiversity and remoteness, and the arrow poisons and herbal medicines of their indigenous peoples, that promised to be the richest trove of pharmaceutical wealth. Adventurers, like fish drawn to a coral reef, began to school there, and a rainforest medicine-hunt was born.
Between 1980 and 1990, the rate at which tropical forests were being cut down rose from thirty million acres a year to forty million. For comparison, all the forest cut down in the United States in a year for agriculture, housing, factories, and shopping malls added up to roughly one-thousandth of that amount. Nothing galvanizes quite as well as fear. in this case, the threat was mass extinction. Environmental groups like The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund tried brokering "debt-for-nature" swaps, in which they persuaded wealthy northern donors to pay off Third World debt if the debtors promised to preserve some rainforest in return. These were but a few straws snatched from the fire, however. Countries with rainforest desperately needed land for pasture, for crops, and timber for export, while the developed world's appetite for beef and timber grown in the tropics showed no sign of satiation. Protests from the worried wealthy, the trust-fund backpackers, the spectacled butterfly-catchers, and the plant-hunters smacked of neocolonialist patronizing by the well-fed. Biodiversity was cheap.
So debt-swaps were augmented with eco-tourism. Tourists-"ecocattle," as one biologist described them-could sometimes earn more money per acre for a tropical landowner than hamburgers on the hoof. In places like Costa Rica, eco-tourism became a big industry. For countries in relative chaos, like Peru, it was more difficult. And in any event, eco-tourism was still not enough. Then came what is commonly called "sustainable development.11 Sustainable development meant extracting raw materials like wood, oils, fibers, pigments, and vegetable products in such a way that the natural resource is not significantly drawn down or permanently din-iinished. Forests and other natural land put aside for such development are called "extractive reserves." Francisco "Chico" Mendes, the martyred Brazilian activist murdered by ranchers, put the idea into practice by helping colonists in the Amazon tap rubber trees and sell the product. Conservation International midwifed a rainforest renewable product, tagua nuts (vegetable ivory), for the button market. Sustainable development was applied to timber-cutting as well, whereby strips of rainforest could be cut alternately up hillsides in such a way that the cut land could be naturally reseeded and would regrow quickly. But could such enterprises actually make money? On June 29, 1989, three North American scientists published a modest, two-page paper in the British joumal Nature that finally applied hard numbers to the sustainability equations. The paper, "Valuation of an Amazonian Rainforest," by Charles M. Peters, Alwyn H. Gentry, and Robert 0. Mendelsohn, assessed the value of trees in a hectare of forest along the Rio Nanay, thirty kilometers southwest of iquitos, Peru. The area was typical of the eastern Andes. Rainy most of the year, its white-sand soil relatively infertile, it nonetheless supported a mix of colonial and indigenous people who made their living fishing, cultivating a few staple crops, and selling a variety of forest products in the markets of Iquitos. The scientists found 842 individual trees, representing 275 species, on their small site. Of those, 72 species and 350 individuals yielded products with some market value in Iquitos. These included timber species, fruit-bearing trees, rubber trees, medicinal plants, and oilbearing palms. The scientists calculated the amount of labor needed to harvest these products, the productivity of the plants, transportation costs, and market prices for each good. Finally, they determined the net present value of these renewable resources. They found that fruit and rubber latex alone would return a value of $6,330 per hectare. Selective timbering that would not exceed the speed at which the forest regenerated would add another $490 per hectare. Income from medicinal plants, small palms, and lianas was not added in, yet the total was still twice the proceeds from a one-time timber harvest of the most popular local hardwood, Gmelina arbores, which would clear only $3,184. Pastureland for cattle compared even less favorably, earning only $2,960, and that was without adding the costs of weeding, fencing, and animal care. So why was the renewable worth of the forests being overlooked? "We believe the problem lies not in the actual value of these resources," said Peters and his colleagues, "but in the failure of public policy to recognize it." Timber is sold intemationally and reaps valuable foreign exchange for debt-ridden developing countries. The "non-wood" products, Peters noted, are small scale, the stuff of subsistence farmers, shop-owners, middlemen, and indigenous people. They live far from the cities and the glitter of the marketplace, the marbled banks, and the pillared centers of commerce and government. Nor were there proven markets, especially international markets, for renewable goods yet. Environmentalists and rainforest conservationists treated the Peters paper as if it were a missing page from the Dead Sea Scrolls, citing it everywhere from foreign aid hearings in the U.S. Congress to open-air classrooms at research stations in the rainforest. Admittedly, it was preliminary and flawed even in the view of its authors. How, for example, would prices for such goods stay up if extractive reserves succeeded and the supply of the products rose? Moreover, circumstances in Peru were different from those in other countries. Nonetheless, the paper propelled the biodiversity movement forward. Other scientists started examining rainforests more closely for renewable products. Among the leaders were members of Cultural Survival, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an organization that tries to help indigenous cultures deal with encroaching modernization. its executive director, Jason Clay, was a big, florid, and enthusiastic anthropologist who had lived with indigenous groups in South America. Clay had long argued that capitalism with a human face was probably the only way to keep the Amazon's forests and its cultures from being reduced to ash and memories. Clay set up an operation within Cultural Survival to market renewable products to North American and European companies. He required companies to set aside one percent or so of sales to be retumed to Cultural Survival and thence to the local producers, usually small collectives of Amazonian colonists or indigenous groups. Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream was an early collaborator, putting Brazil nuts from the Amazon into premium products like "Rainforest Crunch" ice cream for the yuppie market. The Body Shop, a chain of cosmetic stores that wrapped itself in the green flag by selling all types of body ornamentation with some sort of natural constituent or connection, also signed on the Clay plan, and more green capitalists followed. Finally, pharmaceutical companies began to see the value in the green label. As it happened, their synthetic chemists were not turning out many new drugs. "The synthetic chemists had made the easy molecules," observes Charles D. McChesney, a phytochemist at the University of Mississippi who is organizing a multimillion-dollar project there to search for new plant-based drugs. "In terms of new discoveries, synthetic chemistry is now a game of diminishing returns." Perhaps Mother Nature, with millions of years at her disposal, really was more creative than synthetic chemists, having manufactured not only compounds too numerous to count but the very chemists themselves. At the very least, tropical plant compounds could serve as starting points for new synthetics, just as the coca plant became cocaine and then procaine, and poppies became morphine and finally hydromorphine. In addition, medical scientists and biochemists knew more than before. The decade of the 1980s was for bioscience what the 1930s and 1940s were to physics. Great leaps were being made in understanding the mechanism of diseases like cancer, heart disease, arthritis, and mental illness, while new viral diseases like AIDS and maladies of aging like Parkinson's disease were demanding attention and generating lots of money for research. As the mechanisms of disease became clearer, medical scientists developed a new approach to scan the near-infinite number of compounds for likely drugs to confound those mechanisms. They called it "mechanism-based screening." It used to be that if a new chemical compound did not kill one kind of cancer cell or cure a diseased laboratory rat, it was thrown out. Now medical scientists had learned to trace the course of an illness through the body as one might track a metal ball through a pinball machine. Each turn of the disease and the body's response to it involves a reaction with some type of biochemical. Like pinball flippers, these reactions keep the disease rolling. Because they now understand the machine's layout better, scientists can look for some chemical that will inactivate any one of its flippers, robbing the illness of its momentum. In medical terminology, the flippers might be the enzymes that make chemical reactions happen, or they might be receptors, lock-and-key mechanisms that allow access to cells. For example, scientists at the drug company Smith, Kline and Beecham in New Jersey have modeled the multistep process by which constriction of the blood vessels increases blood pressure. They have zeroed in on a key enzyme in the process and are now looking for natural compounds that will block the cellular receptors for just that enzyme and short-circuit the whole process. With the drug companies in the game, money for plant-hunting started to materialize. The National Cancer Institute, which had abandoned plant-hunting in 1982, decided to spend almost $5 million dredging for new plants from the rainforests. The institute took an eclectic approach. It funded the ethnobotanists, who advocated learning from traditional healers, at Mike Balick's shop at the New York Botanical Garden. It also funded the eco-rationalists, those who favored using clues from the forests' organisms to track down drug candidates, from the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. A third group, at the University of Illinois, fell somewhere in between the ethnobotanists and the eco-rationalists. The three groups were to spend five years in Central and South America, Africa, and Asia, respectively, searching for new drugs from plants. In addition, NCI paid several marine biologists to start looking for new compounds from the ocean, from coral reefs to windrows of seaweed on remote beaches. At the same time, drug companies like Merck & Company, Monsanto, and Smith, Kline refinanced their plant chemistry departments and started sending botanists back out into the forests. What had begun in the mid1980s as an exasperated cry of warning from a handful of biologists had swelled to a full-throated oratorio. The effort to wring value from rainforests now had enough urgency and emotional heft to move public opinion, and enough field data had been gathered to suggest that sustainable harvesting might even pay. Those few who knew medicinal botany's past certainly had reason for hope. One-quarter of all prescription drugs in fact contain a useful plant ingredient. Around the world, 121 prescription drugs are made from higher plants (and that does not include antibiotics from microorganisms). Almost half of the plants in these medicines come from the tropics. And 74 percent of these were discovered by following up native folklore claims. And now there were hard-nosed businesspeople and government bureaucrats who were risking relatively large sums of money to try out this idea. But it still needed a name, something that captured the essence of rainforest exploration and medicine-hunting for profit as well as the need for conservation. The whole thing was like prospecting, really, part educated guess and part gamble, with an overtone of rugged outdoor romance. Some people started calling it chemical prospecting, a term entomologist Thomas Eisner at Cornell used. Others preferred biodiversity prospecting. But prospecting it was. The prospectors were biologists and anthropologists, and instead of dark pits in the earth, they would mine tropical forests. And in less time than they imagined, they would strike a vein of green ore.
Shamans, Profits, and Ethics
Plant-hunting for medicines might seem the kind of earthly enterprise that would strike a favorable chord in the ecologically aware 1990s. On closer inspection, however, it is splintered with controversy. The cracks are visible on a January afternoon in 1992 as an argument winds around a large, baize-covered conference table in a basement room at Rockefeller University in Manhattan. First one, then another person is struggling with a fundamental question: Who owns the planet's biodiversity? On the floor around them, cross-legged and shoulder-to-shoulder, sit several dozen listeners, most uniformly in blue jeans, sweatshirts, and hiking boots with the occasional woven, talismanic wristband worn as ornamentation. At the table, a woman in a business suit, Merck's Lynn Caporale, is defending the point of view that biodiversity can be bought and sold. Merck's pact with INBio has been under a magnifying glass since the deal's announcement, and the questioning today has been especially heated. Many people in this room are angry about the Merck/INBio contract. They are from environmental groups, university faculties, and student groups anthropologists, socialist sociologists, and young activists who are suspicious of big business and its patriarch, "big" Westem culture. They want to know why Merck and INBio have not included indigenous peoples in the deal. They wonder whether, if a plant used by the Bri-Bri people of Costa Rica becomes a cure for cancer or AIDS, the Bri-Bri will share in the profits, and if so, to what extent. What about the farmers who live on the land taken for natural reserves and then explored for potential pharmaceuticals? And who gave INBio the right to sell the country's biota? Will the flora and fauna of Costa Rica be locked up, held secret? And why can't the public see the contract INBio signed with Merck? There is a tightness behind Caporale's even voice, and her eyes have begun to reflect a frayed, trapped look. She explains that Merck prefers to look for interesting organisms using ecological clues rather than investigating the folk remedies of indigenous peoples. While many traditional medicines do actually work, most tend to have the same biochemical mechanism of action. Merck, like other drug companies, wants diverse compounds with unusual activity, chemicals the likes of which scientists or even shamans have never seen before. A woman from Brazil points out that northern industrial concerns have profited from the biological wealth of Latin American countries for centuries. Corn, potatoes, rubber, coca ... the list of products is long, but the ledger of profit to the South is short. Latin American governments in turn have exploited and robbed their own indigenous peoples. The Brazilian is Elaine Elisabetsky, a Brazilian pharmacologist and anthropologist who has lived with and now champions indigenous peoples in the Amazon rainforests. The fatigue in her voice is not lag due to the nine-hour flight from Rio but despair at having seen too many native cultures consumed. Merck should realize, she insists in a syrupy Portuguese accent, that the indigenous peoples of Latin America have spent hundreds of years learning the medical secrets of the forests. Their knowledge, and their husbandry of the rainforest over centuries, will help Merck. Will Merck's money help them? "Maybe ethnobotanical leads are not in your screening process because you would have to share royalties?" she suggests accusingly. The audience on the floor applauds. The mood is shifting from debate toward confrontation. At the table, a gray-suited executive from another large drug company, here to see how Merck's experiment plays with the "save-therainforest" community, whispers in a colleague's ear. Merck may be taking a beating here, he says with a smirk, but it has wrung a good $10 million worth of good press out of a mere $1 million gamble. Indeed, despite the scene at the university, the Merck/INBio deal has won the company much favorable attention, as well as imitators several pharmaceutical companies have begun investigating new drug leads from natural products again. Even some conservation groups that normally treat multinational corporations like paroled convicts have cautiously approved the initiative. Yet doubters suspect it is business as usual. The secrecy surrounding the royalty arrangement has raised suspicions, and the nagging question remains, is Costa Rica getting a fair return for its natural resources? And who owns those resources? No one has resolved such questions, nor do answers appear at hand. INBio's Ana Sittenfeld, a microbiologist and head of the venture's biodiversity prospecting program, hunches over the conference-room table as if she is about to climb onto it. Her salt-and-pepper hair is close-cropped and her jaw is square and, at the moment, clenched. The few remaining indigenous people in her country, she explains, are largely acculturated. The old ways are mostly forgotten. Now biodiversity belongs to all Costa Ricans. She leans back in her chair but tosses out a challenge. "Secret?" she asks. "Yes, our biodiversity can be secret. What's the difference between a tree in Costa Rica and chip in Silicon Valley?" Sittenfeld and others at INBio are insulted by the notion that the "poor little Costa Ricans" could never have driven a fair bargain with an American multinational company. Privately, they blame much of the criticism on Costa Ricans who are simply jealous of INBio's success. They are jealous that INBio hired some of the country's best scientists away from the local universities, and they are embarrassed at their own failure to capitalize on the country's biological mother lode. Some are jealous that INBio got custody of the country's largest botanical collection. Some are jealous of the attention INBio is getting from the world press. Petty squabbles in Costa Rica, INBio's executives have begun to think, are playing out in the North as if there were a national uprising on the streets of San Jos6. A weathered brown man in denims and red calfskin boots stands up at one end of the table. He wears a bolo necktie with a chunk of turquoise in it, and his dense black hair is tied back in a ponytail. The argument at the other end of the table trails off into silence. He speaks, and his words have the sharp, clean edges of the southwestern desert, with their hard r's and the o's held long in the back of the mouth. "My name is Richard Deertrack. I am from the Pueblo of Taos. I want to suggest something about the notion of wealth in western society. Take water. Water is the lifeblood of our Mother Earth. No one can put value on it. No one has a right to own it or control it. You will find with indigenous people that this is their concept. No one here has considered the spiritual connection of the people to what you are asking for. it's their life. How are you going to put a value on their life in all this?" A scientist from Merck, George Albers-Schonberg, has been quietly grinding his teeth throughout the debate. He is well-acquainted with the arguments, being the company's director of natural product chemistry. "With all due respect," he interjects, "if what you respect is going up in flames, something has to be done. And it cannot be done for free. " For Deertrack, these arguments miss the point. He explains. "When you begin to get medical herbs, you begin to tamper with the spiritual connection between people and those herbs. Can we put a monetary value on that? if you go to a doctor, you expect to pay him. But if you go to a shaman to be healed, you may give him a horse, or you may just say, 'Thank you, may you live a long life.' How do you put value on that? That is all I ask."
Clashes between conservationists and the business community are as common as tavern brawls. As the renaissance in plant-hunting for medicines begins to take shape, however, some of the combatants believe it might serve as a unifying enterprise. With the drug industry's monetary might and the conservation movement's dogged idealism, perhaps the unlikely union of profit and preservation in the rainforest might work. The meeting at Rockefeller University has been organized by an environmental group, Rainforest Alliance, with help from the New York Botanical Garden's Mike Balick and his Institute of Economic Botany, in an attempt to clear the air of rumor and let the former enenues get to know each other. As the basement t@te-A-t@te showed, however, the two groups, almost too comfortable in their long-standing rivalry, are still edgy and suspicious. Hovering somewhere in the middle are the tropical biologists. For them, the influx of interest in rainforest research looks like the British ships arriving at the beach at Duakirk. If they are skeptical of the drug industry's promises, they are nonetheless happy to see fresh money for their cause. Many academics have in fact been quietly taking money for decades from drug companies in return for botanical samples they bring back from the tropics. Botanists do not discuss the practice outside the profession, but it has always gone on. Most academics, observes one well-known ethnobotanist in an ungenerous moment, "are whores."
The second day of the meeting at Rockefeller proves to be a repeat of the first, writ large. Several hundred people sit in steeply raked rows of seats in the semi-darkness of a university lecture hall as a procession of anthropologists, sociologists, botanists, political activists, drug company executives, chemists, and conservationists make their cases. A recurring theme is the alleged rip-off of the people of Madagascar, source of the rosy periwinkle that generated huge profits for the drug manufacturer Eli Lilly & Company. The Lilly scientist who made the discovery in the early 1950s stands and defends the company, pointing out that the species of periwinkle in question grew in many parts of the tropics, and no more "belonged" to Madagascar than pine trees belong to the Cheyenne. Next, the National Cancer institute is accused of having once ripped up an African country's entire population of a rare plant in its search for a new cancer drug. There are also stories circulating here that a small plant "brokerage" is capitalizing on the new frenzy for plant-drugs by grabbing plants in herbaria and reserves from Central America to Indonesia and selling them to big drug companies without compensating source countries. And Merck comes in for more criticism. While the company is claiming that folk remedies are not on its collecting agenda, it is accused of having recently experimented with an Amazonian Indian arrow poison called tike-uba for use as an anticoagulant. One drug company, however, silences the critics. Even the company's name advertises its cultural correctness: Shaman Pharmaceuticals. Shaman is a small but growing company with headquarters in San Carlos, Califomia, that in 1992 is barely two years old. It calls itself an ethnobotanical enterprise, the only drug company that searches for pharmaceutical leads primarily from traditional practices by indigenous peoples, mostly those who live in tropical forests.
The company was started by a confident young investment analyst, Lisa R. Conte. Just thirty-one when she put the idea together, Conte specialized in high-technology venture capital deals. She got the idea for Shaman after reading a magazine article about the cultural traditions that were disappearing along with the world's rainforests. She did not know what an ethnobotanist was, but she spent six months finding out. She then got a collection of scientific luminaries to sign on as official advisers: Nobel laureate physician Baruch S. Blumberg, pharmacognocist Norman Farnsworth of the University of Illinois; the skeptical former plant-hunter Robert Raffauf of Northeastern University; Elaine Elisabetsky, the Brazilian ethnopharmacologist; Schultes's students Balick, Mark Plotkin, and Djaja Soejarto; and even Schultes himself. Conte knew a small company could not hope to compete against the large drug manufacturers in screening huge quantities of plants for new compounds. So she chose an "ethnobotanical screen," in which her advisers pinpointed plants they knew of from remote areas that had not been investigated thoroughly. At the same time, Conte canvassed the world of environmentally friendly investors. She ran into a lot of disbelievers who thought she was peddling healing crystals. "It's not voodoo medicine," she told them over and over. "It's serious stuff." The novelty of the idea eventually helped as much as hindered. Newspapers doted on the story, casting Conte as a female Don Quixote tilting against the big drug companies while saving the rainforests. With her scientific advisory board lending gravity and her own knack for persuasiveness, Conte got enough backing to hire a few scientists and start testing plants. Her chief plant-hunter was Steven A. King. King had lived among the Secoya people of the western Amazon forests and was regarded in the profession as one of the real McCoys, a muddy-boots field scientist. While Conte raised money, King made the rounds at scientific meetings, within environmental groups, and among the policy-makers in Washington, D.C. With his spiky blond hair, his penchant for pastel designer suits, and his rapid-fire speechmaking, King might as well have been a tropical toucan dropping in on the gray pigeons. He vmuld make the slide projector hum with images of the biological wealth of the Central and South American tropics, and dazzle listeners with data about what the tropics have given the North and how little has been returned. Potatoes, maize, cassava, quinine, drugs for cancer and motion sickness, cacao for chocolate the list would be tong and go by quickly. Then slides of local people -the Secoya, the Quichua, the Waorani, the Kuna, harvesting their biological wealth in a sustainable, envirorirnentally friendly way, as they have done for centuries. King would call them his collaborators; they are the people from whom Shaman Pharmaceuticals would learn. And they would be compensated. "Any agenda to try and manage resources will have to include the human beings that live in the forest," he would say. "They are often left out of the picture." They might get money, they might get medicine. "Often indigenous forest people say they need help in access to modern medicines, modern drugs, for things they cannot cure." After a half hour of this, King's listeners usually left intrigued, sometimes convinced, and generally exhausted. At the very least, they could see this was no ordinary business operation. Conte has been asked to speak at the Rainforest Alliance meeting, and she chooses the event to announce the company's first success. Statuesque, with shining black hair pulled back into professional neatness and a bright red dress worthy of a fashion show, Conte lights up the stage like a basketful of geraniums. "This is probably one of the few groups I talk to where I don't have to define the word shaman," she begins. She explains that more or less random sweeps of tropical plants yield "hits," or potentially useful compounds, less than one percent of the time. "But we get about afifty percent hit rate in initial activity," she says. Shaman, in less than two years' time, already has three pure compounds in development as drugs. Seventy more extracts are in the pipeline from over one hundred plants that Shaman's collectors have brought in. " Our lead product is termed SP-303," Conte announces. "It's an antiviral agent that targets respiratory diseases. This is a great disease market in every single culture and every single country, each year affecting anywhere from twenty to forty percent of the population. Available treatment in the United States is not adequate.... This is potentially a blockbuster market with a drug of the right characteristics." Conte's enthusiasm is more than hype. The compound is in fact quite remarkable. A topical formulation of it also seems to work against the herpes virus, another huge market. "I can't describe it too clearly or somebody here will figure out what the plant is," Conte continues. She says it grows wild, like a weed, and can be found in Ecuador, Peru, Paraguay, Colombia, and Mexico. Exactly where and how Shaman gets the plants is described only vaguely, however. Shaman "works with organizations of cooperatives as well as government organizations," Conte explains. She assures her listeners that the company pays a premium price for the plants, with the understanding that Shaman will do the necessary research to ensure that a long-term, sustainable harvesting of the plant is feasible. Moreover, Conte says, the company is creating income and jobs in Latin America. One thing about Shaman's mysterious plant is clear: it has a long history of traditional use as a wound-healer in Latin America and probably elsewhere, first by indigenous groups and now by rural settlers as well. Conte promises that those who help Shaman, be they cooperatives of landowners and farmers, indigenous groups, or government organizations, will get a share of profits if the drugs make it to market. In the meantime, Shaman is helping rainforest people in other ways. Ethnobotanist King recently has gone looking for a source of SP-303 among the Waorani people in Ecuador. He showed their shamans photographs of oral herpes lesions, and the healers pointed him to the plant they used to treat it. It was the same plant Shaman had been investigating. King was accompanied by a doctor who then spent several days treating the Waorani for various illnesses, including an outbreak of whooping cough, as compensation for their help. in the future, Conte says, a foundation the company had started, the Healing Forest Conservancy, will try to help indigenous forest people in similar ways. By the end of the conference, Conte and King have stolen the show. Eager students approach them asking if they can sign on, and conservationists in the crowd applaud this novel enterprise. Clearly, the rules of botanical engagement have changed. It is no longer acceptable for drug developers to march into the jungle with a handful of gimme and a mouthful of much obliged, and with the ethnobotanists and the ecologists as partners, at least a few in the industry appear ready to embrace the new ethic. But until a new drug is actually created, promises to share the real spoils remain to be tested. Whether medicine-hunters actually follow the new rules is something that will be judged not in executive suites and university lecture halls in North America but along the unnamed tracks and remote rivers of the tropical forests. The witnesses will be the world's forest peoples, the Waorani and Quichua of Ecuador, the Huambisa of Peru, the Yanomamo of Venezuela, the hill tribes of Thailand, the healers of Cameroon and Malaysia, and the rest of the world's forgotten people, the first owners of our earthly goods.