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In Memoriam: Jim Duke

Citizens for Health regrets the loss of a dear friend and champion of the health freedom movement, Jim Duke. A renaissance man in the truest sense of the word, and as frequent collaborator Steven Foster notes, “His impact and inspiration for the last three generations of all aspects of the herbal community cannot be overstated.” He worked for the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service for almost 30 years as a botanist, developing one of his most enduring legacies, the Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases to which scientists still turn to support their research.

We share here an obituary from the American Botanical Council, a link to his Green Farmacy site, and other items of interest.

Ethnobotanist and Herbal Medicine Advocate Jim Duke Dies at 88

News provided by American Botanical Council

Austin, TEXAS (December 11, 2017) — Jim Duke, PhD, an esteemed ethnobotanist, author, and a co-founder of the American Botanical Council (ABC), died at his home last evening. He was 88 and had been in declining health.

“He was a brilliant, dedicated, funny, and humble man, who earned the admiration, respect, and love of thousands of scientists and herbal enthusiasts,” said Mark Blumenthal, ABC’s founder and executive director. “Jim’s huge body of work, love of plants and people, sense of humor, and generosity of spirit are positive examples for all of us.”

Duke authored hundreds of articles and an estimated three dozen books, both popular and technical. He compiled botanical data from all types of sources for his “Father Nature’s Farmacy” database, and was a humble botanist who preferred to walk barefoot in his extensive medicinal plant garden, or, when possible, the Amazonian rainforest.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, on April 4, 1929, Duke studied botany at the University of North Carolina, where he received his undergraduate and doctoral degrees in 1955 and 1961, respectively. Postgraduate work took him to Washington University and the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. It was there where he developed what was, as he put it, “my overriding interest: neotropical ethnobotany.”

Early in Duke’s career with Missouri Botanical Garden, his work took him to Panama, where he penned painstaking technical descriptions of plants in 11 plants families for the Flora of Panama project published in the Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden. He also studied the ethnobotany of the Choco and Cuna native groups, which culminated in his first book: Isthmian Ethnobotanical Dictionary, a 96-page handbook describing medicinal plants of the Central American isthmus.

In 1963, Jim Duke took a position with the USDA in Beltsville, Maryland. From 1965 to 1971, he worked on ecological and ethnological research in Panama and Colombia for Battelle Memorial Institute. Duke returned to USDA in 1971, where he worked on crop diversification and created a database called the “Crop Diversification Matrix” with extensive biological, ecological, and economic data on thousands of cultivated crops.

His interest in medicinal plants never waned. In 1977, he became chief of the Medicinal Plant Laboratory at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, and then chief of USDA’s Economic Botany Laboratory. At the time, USDA was under contract with the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to collect plant materials from all over the world for screening for anti-cancer activity. After the program ended in 1981, Jim Duke continued his work at the Germplasm Resources Laboratory. Duke served on the board of the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research (ACEER) in the early 1990s, and the nonprofit created a fund in his honor to support its educational programs in 2007. Duke also received the ACEER Legacy Award in 2013.

Duke established the Green Farmacy Garden in Fulton, Maryland, in 1997 as a teaching garden with approximately 300 species of medicinal plants. For several years, Duke hosted the AHPA-ABC HerbWalk as a part of Natural Products Expo East.

Duke retired from USDA in 1995, but retirement was in name only. Shortly thereafter, The New York Times published a profile on Duke. (HerbalGram published a bio on Duke in issue 77.)

“His impact and inspiration for the last three generations of all aspects of the herbal community cannot be overstated,” said Steven Foster, an author, photographer, and collaborator with Duke on multiple books. “He was a renaissance man in the broadest sense.”

Duke is survived by his wife Peggy, daughter Cissy, and son John.

About the American Botanical Council

Information regarding services and donations can be found here: A note from the family: Jim Duke’s Legacy


The ABC reports they will be creating a tribute to Jim and his life very soon, and have shared the following, from botanist and long-time Jim Duke collaborator Steven Foster’s personal comments and brief biography of Jim:

It is with great sadness to learn the news of the passing of one of the giants of the herbal movement of the past century, James A. Duke, PhD, who died peacefully on the evening of December 10, 2017.

Jim, as he was known to all, served as one of the founding members of the Board of Trustees of the American Botanical Council. His impact and inspiration for the last three generations of all aspects of the herbal community cannot be overstated.

Perhaps more than any other individual, Jim Duke, personified the coalescing of science with traditional knowledge on medicinal plants, which he freely shared with passion and heart. He was a prolific “compiler” as he referred to himself, of data on medicinal plants, which he shared an estimated three dozen books, both popular and technical.

Jim Duke, was a key figure of the “herbal renaissance,” a phrase coined by Paul Lee, PhD. He was a renaissance man in the broadest sense.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, on April 4, 1929, Jim Duke was a bluegrass fiddler by age 16, even appearing at the Grand Ole Opry, in Nashville, Tennessee.

An interest in plants was not far behind his interest in music. In 1955, he took a degree in botany from the University of North Carolina. In 1961, the same institution conferred a doctorate in botany upon him. Postgraduate work took him to Washington University and Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. It was there where he developed what was, as he put it, “my overriding interest — neotropical ethnobotany.”

Early in Duke’s career with Missouri Botanical Garden, his work took him to Panama where he penned painstaking technical descriptions of plants in 11 plants families for the Flora of Panama, project, published in the Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden. During his years in Panama he also studied the ethnobotany of the Choco and Cuna native groups. The Choco are a forest people who lived scattered along rivers, and the Cuna live in villages. Another fruit of these years was his first book — Isthmian Ethnobotanical Dictionary, a 96-page handbook describing medicinal plants of the Central American isthmus.

In 1963, Jim Duke took a position with the USDA in Beltsville, Maryland, focusing on tropical ecology, especially seedling ecology. From 1965 to 1971, he worked on ecological and ethnological research in Panama and Colombia for Battelle Columbus Laboratories. Duke returned to USDA in 1971 where he worked on crop diversification, creating a database called the “Crop Diversification Matrix” with extensive biological, ecological, and economic data on thousands of cultivated crops.

His interest in medicinal plants never waned no matter what unrelated tasks government bureaucrats pushed his way. In 1977, he became Chief of the Medicinal Plant Laboratory at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, and then Chief of USDA’s Economic Botany Laboratory. At the time, USDA was under contract with the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to collect plant materials from all over the world for screening for anti-cancer activity. After the program ended in 1981, Jim Duke continued his work at USDA as Chief of the Germplasm Resources Laboratory, collecting data and plant material on food crops from around the world.

During the Reagan Administration, he was also charged with the unenviable, and as Jim Duke himself admits, “impossible” task of finding a replacement crop in the Andes for coca, the ancient Inca stimulant and source of its abused alkaloid, cocaine.

Dr. Duke retired from USDA in September of 1995, but retirement was in name only.

—Steven Foster


For Further Reading:

James A. Duke Wikipedia

The Green Farmacy Garden

The Medicine Hunter: Dr. James Duke

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