In the world of botanical medicine, Jim Duke, PhD, stood like a mighty Redwood tree: bridging earth and sky, creating a vast ecosystem around him, and casting a long shadow.
One of the nation’s foremost ethnobotanists, Duke has played a central and pioneering role in the establishment of modern herbal medicine as we know it today, while at the same time safeguarding ancient herbal knowledge, as well as the indigenous peoples who’ve kept it for centuries. And then there’s the plants themselves.
Duke, who died at his Maryland home on December 10, at the age of 88, had dedicated his life to the preservation of medicinal plants, and the ecosystems in which they grow. He was particularly enamored with the Amazon, and spent much of his time walking barefoot in the rainforests learning from the people who’ve lived there for centuries.
Beloved by his friends and colleagues for his intellect, humor, and humility, Duke was equal parts scientist and folklorist. He was born in Birmingham, AL, on April 4, 1929, and showed an early talent for music, mastering Bluegrass fiddle by age 16. His musical chops led him to performances at the Grand Ole Opry, and he continued to perform in Dixieland Jazz bands throught his college years at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where he studied botany.
He began his career at the US Departmetn of Agriculture, studying and cataloguing crop diversity. He later became the chief of the USDA’s Medicinal Plant Laboratory, and later, the head of USDA’s Economic Botany Lab. During his tenure, USDA participated in a joint project with the National Cancer Institute to collect plants from all over the world and screen them for potentially anti-neoplastic compounds.
From the early 1990s on, Duke took leadership roles at the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research, an organization that has played a vital role in protecting the rainforests and their peoples, preserving medicinal plants, and teaching the rest of the world.
Throughout his long and storied career, Duke published more than 20 books, and hundreds of research papers, and compiled several foundational texts and databases like the USDA’s Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Database (which began it’s life as Dr. Duke’s “Father Nature’s Farmacy”), the CRC Handbook of Medicinal Herbs, and his popular 1997 bestseller, The Green Pharmacy.
Alongside his academic credentials, he cultivated his artistic sensibility and his taste for the quirky. In 2008 he published Duke’s Handbook of Medicinal Plants of the Bible, a treatise on what he mirthfully called “faith-based farmacy.” In the same spirit, he issued a now out-of-print compendium of his humorous plant-themed poems called Herbalbum–An Anthology of Varicose Verse. Some of these made it onto an album of bluegrass tinged songs Duke recorded with his musician friends. To whit:
I’m plowing up my herbs, they’re much too hard to grow.
Gonna move to the suburbs, and grow me some placebo.
–from, Hushpuppy-The Sad Saga of St. John
In 1997, at their home in Fulton, MD, Jim and his wife Peggy established the Green Farmacy Garden, where they’ve preserverd and cultivated hundreds of helpful and healthfull species. The Dukes regularly hed herb walks and education sessions at the Garden, and Jim himself was especially fond of leading herbal study tours through remote parts of the Amazon.
In his touching portrait of Duke, plant photographer Stephen Foster recalls his first jungle voyage with Duke:
Jim leaned over and said, “You’re going to get the tropical bug.”
”What do you mean, tropical disease?”
“No,” Duke comforted, “I mean, after you come to the tropics once, you will want to return as often as you can.”
“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, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council, of which Duke was also a co-founder. “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.”
Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association, shares Blumenthal’s respect and admiration.
“Beyond Dr. Duke’s invaluable contributions to the herbal industry, he was a humble man who personified the Southern gentleman,” said AHPA President Michael McGuffin. “His sincere passion for understanding how humans used plants as medicine to promote health and well-being helped numerous individuals improve their quality of life using herbs and botanicals. Jim’s passing will be mourned by the herbal community, but his work and legacy will not be forgotten.”
Duke is survived by his wife, Peggy, and their two children Cissy and John.
Cissy and the family have posted a page honoring the legacy of James Alan Duke, and celebrating his spirit.