Ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin has scoured the tropical rain forests of Central and South America in search of plants with the power to heal. In his quest Plotkin has enlisted the help of the powerful shamans, or witch doctors, of the Amazon region. For Plotkin, the search has been a race against time, as more and more of the rich resources of the tropical rain forest fall to the bull dozers and land-clearing crews.
At the urging of his mentor, the late Richard Evan Schultes, a pioneer ethnobotanist and professor of botany at Harvard University, Plotkin first travelled to the north-eastern Amazon in 1977. To Plotkin, whose research has depended on close cooperation with the native peoples of the rain forest, one of the most alarming phenomena has been the disappearance of the rain forest cultures, which have dropped from sight even faster than the forests themselves.
Determined to become an ethnobotanist, Plotkin threw himself into his studies at Harvard’s extension school, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1979. Two years later he received a master’s degree from Yale University’s School of Forestry, and then got his Ph.D. from Tufts University in 1989.
Since plants had played a vital role in the development of about one-quarter of all existing prescription drugs, Plotkin hoped that with the help of the Amazonian shamans he might be able to uncover still more tropical plants with medicinal potential.
In the late 1980s Plotkin joined the World Wildlife Fund to become its director of plant conservation, a position he held for four years. In 1993 he became a research associate at Harvard’s Botanical Museum and also joined Conservation International as vice president for plant conservation. In 1995 Plotkin co-founded the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT), an organization dedicated to the preservation of the biological and cultural integrity of the Amazon rain forest. Plotkin serves ACT as its president and also serves as research associate for the Smithsonian Institution’s Department of Botany.