Dr. James A. Duke’s preeminent contribution to USDA and the world is his integrated view of using plants for food, medicine and fuel; informed by his lengthy study of how people in remote jungles successfully use plants for all aspects of their economic existence. You might say that the author of the popular “The Green Pharmacy” was “green” before the rest of the world recognized our need to use resources more efficiently. Another important contribution of note: Dr. Duke showed that almost all edible legumes contain estrogenic isoflavones, key cancer modulators.
Dr. James A. Duke, who worked for USDA from 1968 to 1995, is internationally known for his research and expertise on neotropical ethnobotany, tropical ecology, medical botany, and crop diversification. He worked for the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service for almost 30 years as a botanist, developing the most comprehensive Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases that remain critical research tools for today’s scientists. He has authored or co-authored more than 30 books and hundreds of articles, bringing his expertise not only to fellow scientists, and to the public with an interest in medicinal uses of plants.
His successors at USDA have built on his compilations of invasive weeds that can be used for fuel and valuable medicinal compounds. Dr. Duke was and remains at the forefront of a vision of using simple, sometimes pesky, plants to create jobs throughout the world, helping the poorest and most remote people, and in the process, creating medicines, biodiesel, energy alcohol, and reducing the manufacture of persistent herbicides--thereby having fewer weeds, hence less competition for more desirable plants.
For example, the Field Pennycress, an invasive alien weed, has recently been suggested as an alternative source of diesel oil (“From Weed to Wonder Fuel”; Crop Biotech Update; November 28, 2008). This is a case of an invasive yet edible weed from which valuable phytochemicals can be extracted, including medicinal compounds, herbicides, fungicides, and viricides. After extraction of valuable phytochemicals, the oilseeds can be converted to biodiesel, the cellulosic plant residues (residual biomass) into energy alcohol. Harvesting the weed can provide temporary work for locally unemployed, delivering the remains to new small factories designed to extract the valuable phytochemicals and convert the residues into biodiesel and energy alcohol. Building a new processing plant would create employment as well. This edible weed can now be found in all the original 48 states, and probably Alaska and Hawaii as well. (Duke, 1992) We could alleviate three different problems all at once--the energy crisis, the invasive weed problem, and the unemployment problem; while providing local sources of natural medicines, pesticides and soil amendments. Duke described Field Pennycress in one of his handbooks on medicinal plants. He included common names, activities, indications, dosage information, negative news (downsides), and notes on the extracts and list of chemicals. One of the many chemicals, allyl- isothiocyanate, is believed to prevent cancer. Dr. Duke has studied and catalogued over 3,000 species of plants.
Dr. Duke, at age 82, still advances his integrated agenda to make fuel and medicine from weeds, instead of battling weeds with energy-consuming xenoestrogenic pesticides, which are increasingly recognized for their disruptive effect on the environment and its biological inhabitants.
As leader of the USDA Cancer Screening Laboratory (1977-1982), Duke led scientific research and collaboration between the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Cancer Institute, screening thousands of plants for anti-cancer activities. Dr. Duke's database catalogues thousands of medicinal plants according to chemistry, biological activity and traditional medicine, and is queried by natural products researchers around the world.
Additionally, Dr. Duke developed a database of Plants that have Energy Importance and crop programs to ensure sustainability and ecology as well as non-timber forest products. During his 27-year tenure with USDA, Dr. Duke also led a research investigation with the National Institutes of Health concerning "designer foods" with high cancer-preventive nutritional content. Dr. Duke is a champion of the use of nutritious foods, spices and herbs for the prevention and amelioration of medical conditions.
He leads botanical tours to the Amazon and Costa Rica, and, along with his technical writing, continues to amass the latest scientific data on the safety and efficacy of botanicals. In March 2008, he led a group of U.S. pharmacists, doctors and nurses on the Rio Napo in Peru's Amazonia as part of an accredited, continuing medical education program sponsored by the University of Washington's Schools of Pharmacy, Medicine and Nursing. He was part of the Scientific Advisory Team of Shaman Pharmaceuticals (South San Francisco, California) and served as Medicinal Plant Adviser to Reader's Digest and Time-Life. He is an expert on ethnic medicines around the world including but not limited to North America, China, India, Latin America, Europe, the Middle East and parts of Africa. In addition to his recognized encyclopedic knowledge of medicinal plants, he is also a lecturer on the volatile plant constituents used in aromatherapy and personal care products. Dr. Duke is one of the first to educate us that just because it is "natural" does not mean that a plant is necessarily safe.
Dr. Duke is a member of the Board of Trustees of The American Botanical Council (ABC) and was awarded ABC's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. He is the recipient of numerous other prestigious awards including: Distinguished Economic Botanist of the Society for Economic Botany; the Rachel Carson Conservation Award for Conservation from the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research; Distinguished Alumnus, University of North Carolina; and recently was named Honorary President of the Herb Society of America. He has served on expert panels and steering committees of the World Health Organization and TRAMIL, devoted to the traditional knowledge of the use of medicinal plants in Central American and the Caribbean.
Dr. Duke has been a cornerstone and lifetime member, collaborator or advisor to the American Herb Association, Association for Tropical Biology, Council of Agricultural Science and Technology, International Association of Plant Taxonomists, International Society for Tropical Root Crops, International Weed Science Society, Organization for Tropical Studies, Oriental Healing Arts Society, Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Xi, Smithsonian Institution, Society for Conservation Biology, Society for Economic Botany, Southern Appalachian Botanical Club and the Washington Academy of Sciences. For the past decade, he has served as a distinguished lecturer and adjunct faculty to Tai Sophia Institute that has the nation's first accredited program in botanical medicine.
Dr. Duke has developed a large organic garden of medicinal plants for study and teaching. His lectures, eco-tours, writing, and garden tours educate scientists and home gardeners alike. As a scientist and educator, his impact is immense.
Dr. Duke has been the subject of news stories, documentaries and articles by numerous media including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, AARP, O Magazine, BBC, Discover, CBS News and The Washington Post and People Magazine along with dozens of profiles in medical and natural foods publications. A tireless researcher and author, he is the author of more than 30 texts and popular books, including the best-selling series The Green Pharmacy by Rodale Press, in addition to scores of journal publications and leading newspaper articles, published between 1955-2011.
Dr. Duke, known as “Jim” to his many friends and colleagues, is valued for his singular research achievements and for his contributions as a catalyst in the scientific testing of botanicals for medical conditions. His understated humor and enviable musical talent are reflected in his songwriting and singing along with playing the bass guitar and guitar.