Words on the Late R. E. Shultes by Andrew Weil

Publication Year: 
2004

Image retrieved from skydeliver.hawkdog.net on April 11th, 2014.

I [Andrew Weil, M.D.] first saw Dick Schultes in September 1960 in the Nash Lecture Hall of the Harvard Botanical Museum. He wore a long white lab coat, and he looked and acted every bit the Harvard professor. Though only forty five at the time, he appeared rather stiff and stuffy, and his style of lecturing was very formal. Yet he had a twinkle about him that suggested something far livelier.
He felt very familiar to me from the moment I first saw him, as if I had known him before. I sensed a connection with him that held my interest. His face fascinated me. His elegant patrician air, the resonant voice: both seemed so familiar and comfortable. I knew that I wanted to spend time with him. He had this effect on people. For those who fell under his spell, he was the ultimate mentor.
This was my first year at Harvard College and the first day of Biology 104, Plants and Human Affairs, a course I had discovered by thumbing through the course catalog. Intrigued by the title, I went to register at the Botanical Museum and was further intrigued by what I found there: a sort of attic of the university, up four flights of steps filled with the most amazing ethnobotanical paraphernalia.
Of course, the term ethnobotany was yet to be in widespread use. Biology 104 was an introduction to economic botany, the study of plants of economic importance other than ornamentals. I have to say that, in retrospect, signing up for that course was the best decision of my academic career.
I was a biology major at the time, unsure what direction my career would take. But I knew from the start that I wanted my commitment to be to the Botanical Museum and that I wanted Shultes to be my thesis advisor. When I approached him in 1963, intent on studying the narcotic properties of nutmeg, he went right for the idea and strongly encouraged me to do it.
I think this provides an interesting insight into the man. He famously liked to parade his strong conservative convictions, taking any opportunity, for example, to dismiss FDR as a socialist or the Kennedy clan as rogues. When harvard erupted as one of the leading centers of the psychedelic revolution, Schultes distanced himself from Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, and often expressed contempt for the casual use of recreational drugs.
At the same time, he was an astonishing voice of reason when it came to the rights of indigenous peoples to use their sacred plants in ritual context. And he was not at all shy about flaunting his own use of various plant preparations. He openly spoke of his experiences with peyote and ayahuasca, and he enjoyed telling any one who would listen about the virtues of coca, most especially the Amazonian powder preparation, ipadu, which was his favorite. Years after we had first met, he stayed with me in Tucson when he was lecturing at the University of Arizona. I had just returned from the Amazon and had brought back a can of ipadu. I did my best to save some for him, but unfortunately by the time he arrived there wasn't much left. He took one look inside the can and with a wry smile remarked, “There might be enough there to fill a cavity in my tooth.”
I have always thought that Schultes's conservative persona was, at least at some level, a bit of a front, and that deep down he was really a freak in the best sense of the word, a proto-psychonaut. It was, to say the least, pretty unusual in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s to be studying hallucinogenic plants. Perhaps the conservative demeanor provided a useful cover.

pp. 13, 14 The Lost Amazon by Wade Davis (2004)

Richard Evans Schultes
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