Re: plants n'drugs

Harriet Whitehead (whitehea@WSUNIX.WSU.EDU)
Thu, 2 Mar 1995 07:09:49 -0800

Marsha, I recently picked up Mark J. Plotkin's *Tales of a Shaman's
Apprentice* which I haven't finished yet, but I'm finding revealing. I'd
be interested in your (or anyone else's) take on this book. It contains
convincing tidbits but also tales that are a little too good to be true,
as well as the kind of shaky connections that keep showing up in popular
mystiques about native peoples and their drug knowledge. Example:
according to him the pink-flowered periwinkle has been used from
Madagascar to the Caribbean to treat such conditions as inflamed eyes,
sore throat, wasp sting, fever, hemorrhage and diabetes. Upon scientific
investigation it yeiled an anti-cancer drug called vinblastine now widely
used to combat lymphoma. Voila! My question: why aren't we using it to
treat inflamed eyes, sore throat, hemorrhage, diabetes, etc. Or
conversely, why weren't these native people using it to treat cancer?
Indeed is there any connection at all between any of these conditions
that might link them, medicinally, to the same drug? It seems to be
sufficient to these ethnopharmacologists that western science find some,
even tenuous, medicinal use for a plant that native peoples employ for
them to credit the native peoples with medicinal knowledge; they never
attempt to show that the plant cures the condition that native peoples
were employing it to treat.

Anyway, comments welcome.

Harriet Whitehead
Anthropology, WSU

On Wed, 1 Mar 1995, Marsha Quinlan wrote:

> Anthro-Lers, does anyone on the list know anything about the
> history of anthropological ethnobotany and ethnopharmacology? What
> are the fundamental works in the field? Who are the key figures?
> This info would greatly help me to get started on a paper for a class
> on the History of Anthropology. Marsha