SCHULTES: EXPLORER OF THE AMAZON JUNGLE
is a celebration of the life of a scientist who was a lifelong
member of Kings Chapel, Boston. In 1787 the first
Episcopal church in New England became the first Unitarian
church in the New World.
MAN, ONE RIVER: A STORY OF AMAZON EXPLORATION
by Hugh Synge, Director of Plant Talk
into an East Boston immigrant family fallen onto hard times,
Richard Schultes was the first of his family to go to University.
As a student at Harvard, he came under the influence of
Oakes Ames, the distinguished orchidologist and director
of the Harvard Botanical Museum. In Ames's class on Plants
and Human Affairs, the young Schultes came to study peyote
(Lophophora spp.), fascinated by stories of hallucinogenic
effects. A small cactus from New Mexico, this plant had
at that time spread to almost 80 tribes in the USA, who
used it as a medicine and ritual sacrament. As part of his
studies, Schultes spent six weeks in 1936 living among the
Kiowa in the midwest. He was, in Wade Davis's words, "one
of the last generation scholars to actually know the Kiowa
men and women who had lived the culture of the Plains."
Taking peyote with the Kiowa, attending their night-long
ceremonies and sweat lodges, Schultes listened to the stories
of the Kiowa and came to understand the place of peyote
in their lives. His career as an ethnobotanist had begun.
quest was the long-lost identity of teonanacatl and
ololiuqui, the most revered hallucinogenic plants
of the Aztecs. An American botanist had argued that teonanacatl
was simply the Aztec name for peyote, and not the sacred
mushroom reported by the Spaniards. Schultes traveled to
Oaxaca, Mexico, to find it. Soon he and his companion, local
botanist Blas Pable Reko, located a group of Mazatec people
who used the mushroom in nocturnal ceremonies, where native
healers invoked the medicinal power of mushroom through
prayer. They called the mushroom "the little holy ones."
Schultes was not the first to attend a teonanacatl
ceremony, but he was the first botanist to collect and identify
the mushrooms, now known as Panaeolus sphinctrinus.
This extraordinary discovery led to the birth of the psychedelic
era, and the term (not coined by Schultes) "magic mushrooms".
A year later, Schultes was able to identify the even more
sacred and potent ololiuqui as the morning glory
Turbina corymbosa. It was later found to contain
chemicals very close to LSD.
Richard Schultes taking tobacco snuff, May 1952 (photo:
World War II started, Schultes returned to Harvard and accepted
a fellowship to study arrow poisons in the NW Amazon, which
was to be the area of his greatest travels. He arrived in
Colombia in 1941, where on his first day, on the outskirts
of Bogotá, he discovered a new species of orchid
no more than an inch high. He pressed it in his passport
and sent it to Oakes Ames, who named it Pachyphyllum
schultesii, the first of many plants named in Schultes'
From 1941 to 1953 Schultes traveled extensively in the Colombian
Amazon, a land he termed Where the Gods Reign, the
title of a book of photographs from the region. In these
years, he collected over 24,000 specimens and made numerous
ethnobotanical discoveries. A particular interest was the
source of the arrow and dart poisons know as curare. Finding
a reliable source of supply was vital to Western medicine,
where it is a muscle relaxant used in surgery.
Schultes was the first to reveal how psychoactive and toxic
plants touched every aspect of the lives of people like
the Kofán. He was also the first to appreciate the
astonishing range of plants used by indigenous peoples of
the Amazon basin and how hallucinogenic plants were at the
heart of their sacred rituals and medical practice. As Davis
remarks, the Kofán indians are 'the masters, the
patrons of ecstatic intoxication'.
Enduring the dangers of rapids, bouts of disease such as
malaria and beri-beri, loss of equipment and plant materials,
Schultes stayed as long as 14 months in the forest without
a break, mainly traveling by canoe along the rivers. Once,
sick and ill, he had to paddle for 40 days to Manaus to
seek medical help. Another time, he had to wait at a remote
airstrip for two months for a flight out. With no contact
to the outside world, life in perhaps the remotest tropical
area on earth was harsh and unpredictable. Schultes was
driven by his passion for plants, his appreciation of the
way of life of the indigenous people and his fascination
about how the plants were used.
R.E. Schultes and Macuna boys in the 1940s, Rio Apaporis
(photo R.E. Schultes)
the war years, the US Department of Agriculture assigned
Schultes to work on natural rubber. In the early years of
the 20th Century, there was a booming trade in rubber collected
from wild trees in the Amazon, a trade soon to be replaced
almost entirely by rubber from plantations in Asia. With
Asia overrun by the Japanese, the Americans and their allies
were desperate for rubber. Schultes was sent to search for
wild rubber trees in the NW Amazon. He made a grueling series
of journeys along the 1000 miles of the Apaporis River,
counting every rubber tree from the river. He estimated,
that within 1000 yards of the river bank, there were 1.5
million rubber trees. Yet at densities of only one or so
per acre, it was impractical to exploit and would never
be enough. In the end, America survived with a massive nationwide
recycling program and the development of artificial rubber.
Later on, Schultes led a search for strains of wild rubber
resistant to the lethal South American leaf blight, with
a view to establishing plantations of natural rubber in
the American hemisphere. His collections enabled extensive
trials to be established in Costa Rica, but tragically the
US Government abandoned the effort, and much of the work
After 1953, the focus of Schultes's work returned to Harvard.
He devoted much of his time to his students. With chemist
Alfred Hofman, he wrote the leading book on hallucinogenic
plants and published a volume of his evocative black-and-white
pictures from his travels. He continued to visit Colombia,
where he helped establish vast national parks in the Amazon.
He was awarded Colombia's highest honor as well as WWF's
EVANS SCHULTES: FATHER OF MODERN ETHNOBOTANY
from The Daily Telegraph of the United
Schultes was the father of modern ethnobotany, the study
of the use of plants by native cultures such as the Amazonian
Indians, among whom he lived in the 1940s.
He was also the
leading authority on peyote, ayahuasca and other hallucinogenic
plants, and his research came to influence William Burroughs,
Aldous Huxley and the drug culture of the 1960s.
Schultes was regarded as the last of the great plant explorers
in the tradition of William Dampier and Alexander von Humboldt.
Clad in a pith helmet, for much of the 1940s and 1950s he
navigated the tributaries of the Amazon in a portable aluminum
canoe, relying on the hospitality of local Indians.
He documented the use by them of more then 2,000 medicinal
plants, and gathered some 24,000 specimens. He also gave
his name to 120 species, as well as to 2.2 million acres
of rain forest protected by the Colombian government. Schultes
was among the first to chart the growing threat to the eco-culture
of the Amazon.
The hallmark of his work was his sympathy and sensitivity
to the ways of life he encountered. He happily chewed coca
powder with tribesmen, and treated the often fearsome-looking
people he met with disarming courtesy. He never carried
a firearm, I do not believe in hostile Indians,
he said. All that is required to bring out their gentlemanliness
is reciprocal gentlemanliness.
His research into plants that produce hallucinogens brought
his scientific works an underground following in the 1960s,
and he met both Burroughs and Timothy Leary. He afforded
neither much respect. Schultes chided the latter for misspelling
the Latin names of plants, and when Burroughs describes
a psychedelic trip as an earth-shattering experience, his
response was: thats funny, Bill, all I saw were
Schultes was born in Boston on January 12, 1915, the son
of an engineer who put plumbing in breweries.
As a boy he pressed leaves and flowers, but dated his particular
fascination with South America to an illness he had at six
which confined him to bed for several months. His parents
read to him from Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and
the Andes (1908), the travel diary kept by the English
naturalist Richard Spruce, whose adventures made a powerful
impression on Schultes.
He was educated at East Boston High School and then won
a scholarship to Harvard, where he soon switched from medicine
to botany. Making the peyote cactus the subject of his dissertation,
Schultes spent a month with the Kiowa Indians of Oklahoma,
who used the sacred cactus ceremonially to commune with
Schultes also partook of the hallucinogen, remarking later
that it would have been unpardonable rudeness to refuse.
For his doctorate, Schultes then studied teonanactl,
the sacred mushroom of the Mexican Indians of Oaxaca, which
he was the first to identify, and ololiqui, a vine
whose psychoactive seeds have properties similar to LSD.
In 1941, Schultes traveled to the Colombian Amazon to investigate
the source of curare, which as well as being poison had
also been used in hospitals since the 1930s as a muscle
relaxant. He discovered that different types of curare called
for as many as 15 ingredients, and in time he helped to
identify more than 70 species that produced the drug.
During the Second
World War, Schultes searched the Amazon for alternative
sources of rubber to the Malayan plantations occupied by
the Japanese. He taught Indians how to tap latex, and became
an expert on the genus Heva, the principal species
of rubber tree.
With the return of peace, he once more took to his canoe,
and for a dozen years lived in the rain forest. Sometimes
surviving for days on end on tins of condensed milk, he
fended off bouts of malaria and beri-beri, once having to
paddle for 40 days while ill to reach help. On his travels
he collected thousands of samples, many of which were regularly
used by shamans to successfully treat illness.
Some of these plants now carry Schultes's name, including
Pauroma schultesii, a bark whose ashes are used to
treat ulcers, and Hiraea schultesii, whose leaves
Schultes maintained that contrary to popular conception,
the Indians were eager to share their medical secrets. But,
he warned in 1994: "The Indian people and their knowledge
are disappearing even faster than the plants themselves."
He returned to Harvard in 1953, where he eventually became
a professor of biology and director of the university's
He had a rather quirky sense of humor, sometimes demonstrating
his proficiency with a six foot blowpipe in lectures, and
refusing to vote for American presidential candidates, replacing
their name on the ballot with that of the Queen.
Schultes published nine books, including
Plants of the Gods (1979), written with Albert Hofmann,
the chemist who synthesized LSD. He received the Gold Medal
of the Linnaean Society in 1992.
One River: Science, Adventure and Hallucinogenics in
the Amazon Basin by Wade Davis (New York: Simon and
Richard Schultes, medicinal plant expert, dead at
86. Harvard University Gazette (http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/2001/04.19/08-schultes.html).