I have done a good deal of research into the history of plant-based medicines that eventually made their way into spirits and cocktails, like cinchona bark in tonic water, wormwood in absinthe, gentian in bitter amaro, and more. So I had great interest in the forthcoming The Plant Hunter by ethnobotanist Dr. Cassandra Leah Quave. [Buy it on: Bookshop, Amazon] The book comes out on October 19, 2021.
Ethnobotany is "the scientific study of the traditional knowledge and customs of a people concerning plants and their medical, religious, and other uses."
The Plant Hunter is an autobiography of her life in science - so far, anyway- she's only in her early 40s. The book traces her childhood interest in medicine, which changed to an interest in botany/ethnobotany as it pertains to modern medicinal uses. We follow along with many of her botanical educational adventures (learning about plants from indigenous healers) and collecting them- or hunting specific ones really, as in the title of the book.
Along the way we learn about her congenital defects that required many surgeries throughout her youth and constant maintenence in adulthood, being a young wife and mother of three children (two even before becoming a PI in the university) while pursuing academic goals, and particular challenges imposed on women in science. All of these Quave seems to have been able to out-work with what seems like zero downtime for two decades.
The book reveals what a life in academic science is like - always seeking funding for one's education/lab/research, applying for grants, publishing to prove the worthiness of being funded, publicizing experimental success, exploring related entrepreneurial endeavors, and all the while teaching students, mentoring employees from the undergrad to the PhD level, and seeking yet more funding to stay afloat. Plus doing the science.
Meanwhile, Quave takes us with her on her journeys to several countries on a few continents, meeting healers and housewives, botanists, and villagers while doing her field work. It involves not helicoptering in to grab plants and run, but (as she shows her profession realized was necessary) recording the stories of plant use from the locals -what they were used for and how they were prepared- and increasingly creating an exchange/contract so that the Western scientists and biotech companies wouldn't be the only ones to profit from their knowledge.
We also learn how all those plant samples are dried, processed, and tested back in her labs (she has two labs in two different university departments plus an herbarium) for their use particularly as antibiotics and against antibiotic-resistant bacteria and other microbes. She argues near the end of the book for more funding for these endeavors (not just for her own lab), as well as better equity for women and people of color in science in order to demolish the old boys network that is self-sustaining as it is in many fields.
There wasn't overlap with my booze-related research, but that didn't make the reading of it any less enjoyable. It left me inspired to whine a little less and try to accomplish a lot more.
The description from the publisher is as follows:
A leading medical ethnobotanist tells us the story of her quest to develop new ways to fight illness and disease through the healing powers of plants in this uplifting and adventure-filled memoir.
Plants are the basis for an array of lifesaving and health-improving medicines we all now take for granted. Ever taken an aspirin? Thank a willow tree for that. What about life-saving medicines for malaria? Some of those are derived from cinchona and wormwood.
In today's world of synthetic pharmaceuticals, scientists and laypeople alike have lost this connection to the natural world. But by ignoring the potential of medicinal plants, we are losing out on the opportunity to discover new life-saving medicines needed in the fight against the greatest medical challenge of this century: the rise of the post-antibiotic era. Antibiotic-resistant microbes plague us all. Each year, 700,000 people die due to these untreatable infections; by 2050, 10 million annual deaths are expected unless we act now.
No one understands this better than Dr. Cassandra Quave, whose groundbreaking research as a leading medical ethnobotanist--someone who identifies and studies plants that may be able to treat antimicrobial resistance and other threatening illnesses--is helping to provide clues for the next generation of advanced medicines. In The Plant Hunter, Dr. Quave weaves together science, botany, and memoir to tell us the extraordinary story of her own journey. Traveling by canoe, ATV, mule, airboat, and on foot, she has conducted field research in the flooded forests of the remote Amazon, the murky swamps of southern Florida, the rolling hills of central Italy, isolated mountaintops in Albania and Kosovo, and volcanic isles arising out of the Mediterranean—all in search of natural compounds, long-known to traditional healers, that could help save us all from the looming crisis of untreatable superbugs. And as a person born with multiple congenital defects of her skeletal system, she's done it all with just one leg. Filled with grit, tragedy, triumph, awe, and scientific discovery, her story illuminates how the path forward for medical discovery may be found in nature's oldest remedies.