FWD 2 HerbalGram: James A. Duke — A Diverse Life of Botanical Bounty

Issue: 117 Page: 44-57

James A. Duke — A Diverse Life of Botanical Bounty

by Steven Foster

HerbalGram. 2018; American Botanical Council


James Alan Duke, PhD, was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on April 4, 1929, delivered at home by an African-American midwife. He was raised in the red clay hills outside of Birmingham, where one could find a Duke living on nearly every hill. “I come from the cotton-pickin’ Dukes, rather than tobacco Dukes,”* he recalled with his always-present humor, accented by a soft-spoken cadence reflecting his Alabama roots. In his first six years, he spent time between his grandmother’s home on Second Avenue in south Birmingham and a farm along the Coosa (Koosa) River about 40 miles outside the city with his parents and two brothers. His father was a cotton farmer, who later dabbled in the nursery and horticulture business.

Duke recalled that his family was “plain ol’ poor” and they would eat what they could find or grow most of the time, usually homegrown and canned food shared by the extended Duke family in rural Alabama. In a February 1999 issue of People magazine, he mused that his family was “so poor we were The Grapes of Wrath and didn’t know it.”1

A favorite early culinary memory of Duke’s was of scuppernong grapes, a native southern variety of the muscadine grape (Vitis rotundifolia, Vitaceae), which originates along the Scuppernong River of North Carolina. “It’s a redneck grape like I’m a redneck person,” Duke laughed. “They grew behind my grandmother’s house and from late August until frost you could eat them off the vine.” His grandmother often made scuppernong marmalade and jelly, but his favorite treat was the “treasure” his grandmother called “scuppernong juice.”2

Across the street from his grandmother’s Birmingham home lived Mr. Brooks, a lonely old man who kept rabbits. Duke, then five years old, believed that Mr. Brooks and the rabbits were his best friends. Old Mr. Brooks had a great love for nature and would take Duke to the hills along East Lake in Birmingham, where he learned about watercress (Nasturtium officinale, Brassicaceae) and chestnuts (Castanea spp., Fagaceae). By the time Duke started grade school, he had developed a love for biology and the music he heard in the Alabama countryside.

North Carolina Upbringing

Duke lived in Alabama until he was eight, and the Great Depression years forced the family to move to Durham, North Carolina, with Duke and his two brothers in the “rumble seat of a very broken-down car.”3 His family lived in Durham for a year or two and then moved to Raleigh. His father became an insurance salesman, and the family prospered. His dad started playing golf, and the family ate meat and potatoes instead of the high-fiber, mostly vegetable-based diet that they had survived on in Alabama.

Years later, Duke recalled: “This is a story that’s important to me. Both my father and his two brothers who died of cancer graduated from the rural high-fiber diet to the meat-and-potato diet of the newly affluent, and I really think that their cancers of the colon were due to this change in diet. I think that they would have lived many more years had they not achieved this level of affluence. I can’t prove it. But I am what is called a high-fiber nut trying to avoid the same chain of circumstances.”3

In a letter, dated April 15, 1993, to then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, he repeated his position. “You asked for advice on your health reform program,” Duke wrote. “Let me recommend one Jeffersonian health tidbit. If you must use meat, use it as a spice, not as a main entry. That could save thousands of lives and millions, if not billions of dollars.”4

In Raleigh, Duke joined the Boy Scouts and became keenly interested in the outdoors and natural sciences, especially botany and biology.3 Some of his teachers and mentors encouraged his obvious interest in the subject, including his mother, who got him a job watering plants at a greenhouse and enlisted his help in her flower garden. During the same time period, he had a magazine delivery route, and would sometimes trade magazines with musicians in exchange for a performance. His interest in southern folk music and plants grew in tandem.

From the age of 12 on, Duke spent long hours outside, taking hikes that were sometimes 10 miles or more. At age 15, a Mr. Jim Kessler got him a job as a “junior ranger” (really a glorified maintenance man, as Duke described it) at what was then known as Crabtree Creek State Park and is now known as William B. Umstead State Park, a 5,088-acre park in the Raleigh-Durham area. The park was established in 1943 as one of the many Recreational Demonstration Area parks created by the National Park Service through the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps.

The year 1944 was a formative one. By then, he had his own guitar, and, for three months, he lived in a one-room cabin with no water, electricity, or toilet in the middle of a broomstraw field at the park. It was here that he penned one of his first songs, inspired by observing the daughter of one of his bosses, whom he saw swinging on a porch with her blonde hair flowing with the swing’s motion. That inspired the first verse of his “Chamomile” song, recorded on his 1986 vinyl LP HerbAlbum: “Golden hair up in a bun, smiling shyly in the sun.” He never met the young lady.5

Briars to Bands — From Bassist to Botanist

Duke married his first wife, a fellow musician, at a relatively young age. After reading Gene Stratton-Porter’s The Harvester (Grosset and Dunlap), a 1911 novel featuring an herb wildcrafter, Duke dreamed of a Thoreau-like existence in the North Carolina mountains harvesting ginseng (Panax spp., Araliaceae). That fantasy meshed with his love of music, and Duke played bass fiddle with his wife’s band (a trio featuring two sisters and their mother) on the then-country music station WBT radio in Raleigh that featured live country music and bluegrass programming. As a teenager he also played bass as a back-up musician with the trio at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee.

While a student at E. Morrison High School in Raleigh, he played with another band. That gig took him to the WBT radio studio every morning at 6 a.m. to play bass fiddle for a 15-minute live music segment with Homer A. Briarhopper and His Dixie Dudes. In 1947, the young Jim Duke also went to Nashville with the group to record a 78-rpm record featuring the instrumental piece “The Briarhopper Boogie,” in which Jim Duke played a bass solo.3 Homer Drye’s Briarhoppers and His Dixie Dudes with teenage bassist Jim Duke were mentioned in Billboard Magazine the same year.6 The band, which formed in 1934, continues to perform as the WBT Briarhoppers, now in its ninth decade; the longest-lived bluegrass band of all time.7

After high school, Duke enrolled at North Carolina State University in a wildlife conservation program, but he soon dropped out. A year of working odd jobs, such as a carpenter’s helper, sharpened his desire to return to school.8

His musical interests would lead to him to his career as a botanist. In the late 1940s, student musicians from the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill heard Duke playing bass and invited him to play with a big band jazz group at the university. In 1948, he enrolled in UNC as a music major and became the second bass player in the 20-piece jazz band. Since he didn’t read music well, even though he had been practicing for five years, the first bassist played the notated music, while Duke was given the role of  playing improvisational bass solos in the band for almost a decade.8

Down the Botanical Garden Path

Duke’s path to becoming a classical bassist went astray in his first semester at UNC. He took botany courses with H.R. Totten, PhD (1892-1974), and later with C. Ritchie Bell, PhD (1921-2013), and fell in love with field botany.8 The experience compelled him to switch from a music major to a botany major with a focus on taxonomy and a minor in zoology. He earned his undergraduate degree at UNC in 1952. He continued on with a master’s degree program in botany at UNC, where he met fellow botany student, Peggy-Ann Wetmore Kessler. They fell in love and married. Peggy K. Duke, a talented botanical illustrator, provided artwork for many of his publications.

Jim Duke attained his master’s degree on December 7, 1955. The next day, on December 8, he was drafted into the US Army. He was sent to Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina, for basic training, and then was stationed at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, located a few hours from the Mexican border. He recalled that on one of his three-day pass weekends he ventured across the Mexican border and got his first glimpse of Latin America, and fell in love with it. For the rest of his life, Duke would return to Latin America whenever he could.

The Army moved Duke to Fort Benning in Georgia and assigned him to the infantry.8 Duke, of course, would have preferred to have been around plants, and he drafted a letter for his father to send to his Army officers explaining that he had a botany degree, and couldn’t they put that to use? Not long after, he was transferred to Fort Detrick in Maryland, where he trained other soldiers about edible, useful, and poisonous plants and mushrooms.

After completing his two-and-a-half years of military service, he used the GI Bill to enroll in a doctoral program in plant taxonomy at UNC, and became the first graduate student of noted North Carolina botanist Albert E. Radford, PhD (1918-2006).8 Radford, director of the UNC Herbarium from 1946-1983, co-authored the classic Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas with Harry E. Ahles and C. Ritchie Bell, published in 1968 by the University of North Carolina Press. Nearly every weekend during his PhD program, Jim and Peggy Duke were assigned to take Radford, Ahles, or Bell into the field to collect specimens for the Manual. The Dukes are honored in the “Acknowledgments” section of the book for their contributions, including their field collections.9 The book was the first and only mid-20th-century technical flora guide for the South, is still a reliable reference, and remains in print today.

Duke enrolled in a PhD program in botany at UNC in 1959 and finished his PhD work in 1961, after which  C. Ritchie Bell took him on the first of many botanical-collecting trips to Latin America.10 The three-month excursion split time among Mexico, Guatemala, and Costa Rica, where they collected with Rafael Lucas Rodríguez Caballero (1915-1981), the iconic Costa Rican biologist, botanist, and artist known for his wildlife paintings, and for whom a wildlife sanctuary is named (Refugio de Vida Silvestre Dr. Rafael Lucas Rodríguez Caballero, Costa Rica).

Distinguished Ecologist and Student of the Flora of Panama

After Duke completed all the botany courses and degrees offered at UNC in 1961, his professors suggested that he pursue postgraduate work with Robert E. Woodson, PhD (1904-1963), curator of the Herbarium at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, Missouri. Woodson was working on a longterm publication project on the flora of Panama, and Duke put his taxonomic skills to work, writing treatments on Panamanian plant families. These include Amaranthaceae (amaranth family), Berberidaceae (barberry family), Caryophyllaceae (pink family), Ceratophyllaceae (hornwort family), Chenopodiaceae (goosefoot family), Monimiaceae (lemonwood family), Myristicaceae (nutmeg family), Nymphaeaceae (waterlily family), Polygonaceae (buckwheat family), and Ranunculaceae (buttercup family).

Duke’s two years as a taxonomist and assistant curator at the Missouri Botanical Garden focused on identifying plant specimens collected in Panama and elsewhere in Latin America, including Peru.10 During this period, Woodson served as a consultant for Ciba Pharmaceuticals, and they were collecting plants from Peru. Duke had the challenging job of trying to assign names to the Peruvian plant specimens. Although this was his first experience working specifically with medicinal plants, it was limited to the herbarium. It would also mark the end of his professional work as a taxonomist.

In honor of Duke’s taxonomic work on the Panamanian flora in the early 1960s, several species were named for him, including Grias dukei (now a synonym of G. cauliflora, Lecythidaceae),11 Koanophyllon dukei (Asteraceae),12 Psychotria dukei (now a synonym of Notopleura dukei, Rubiaceae),13 and Rondeletia dukei (now a synonym of Wittmackanthus stanleyanus, Rubiaceae).14 In 1966, John Duncan Dwyer, PhD (1915-2005), named a new genus in the Rubiaceae (madder) family Dukea, which included six species: Dukea chariantha, D. panamensis, D. victoriae, D. blumii, D. darienensis, and D. euryphylla, four of which were new to science. Dwyer named them “in honor of Dr. James Duke, distinguished ecologist and student of the flora of Panama.”15 Unfortunately, at least for those who would like to see Duke’s name live on in botanical taxonomy, these species have since been relegated to synonymy in the genus Raritebe.

Puerto Rican Plants

In 1963, Duke was approached by the Crops Research Division, a part of the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Agricultural Research Service, for an assignment in Puerto Rico that piqued his interest. He took the assignment and traveled to Puerto Rico to study tropical tree seedlings. Specifically, the job involved experimental work and documenting how herbicides affected the succession of tropical vegetation. He became proficient at identifying tropical woody plants in the seedling stage.

One publication from this period proved useful in helping to identify tropical tree seedlings in Puerto Rico following the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in September 2017. The comprehensive paper, “Keys for the identification of seedlings of some prominent woody species in eight forest types in Puerto Rico,” also included 182 technical illustrations of seedlings by Peggy Duke.16 The research was contracted by the USDA and sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the US Department of Defense. Peggy Duke’s illustrations were prepared and subsidized by the Rain Forest Project of the Puerto Rico Nuclear Center in El Verde, Puerto Rico, and supported by the Division of Biology and Medicine of the US Atomic Energy Commission.10

Panamanian Ethnobotanical Passion

After two years of successful research in Puerto Rico, Duke was offered a position as a research ecologist with the Columbus Laboratories of the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio.10 His assignment was to conduct bioenvironmental and radiological safety feasibility studies in remote regions of Panama. President John F. Kennedy had initiated a feasibility study to assess the practicality of widening the Panama Canal, or perhaps excavating a new canal, to accommodate supertankers. The project was called the Atlantic-Pacific Interoceanic Canal Study Commission. The United States had a tool that would easily accomplish the excavation work: nuclear devices. The idea was to detonate nuclear devices on the Central American isthmus to create a new canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Sponsored by the Atomic Energy Commission, Battelle was tasked with determining what radionuclides might get into the food chain if a new sea-level Panama Canal were to be excavated with nuclear devices.

“The dietary studies in Panama and Colombia were designed to quantify per-capita food consumption so that it could be determined what quantity of radionuclides would be ingested by natives following nuclear excavations of a sea-level canal, assuming that natives are allowed to return after a selected period of time,” Duke explained.17

Duke’s research took on an ethnobotanical and ethno-zoological focus.10 For nearly three years, his job was to document what the local and indigenous people ate, drank, and used as medicine from the environment. He took his young family, including Peggy, their two-and-a-half-year-old son John, and six-month-old daughter Celia, with him to Panama.

“It was extremely interesting, learning how closely these people were tied to the environment,” Duke recalled.10 He traveled by dugout canoe, and much of his work was conducted in the Darién province of Panama, a wilderness region that is considered to be one of the most dangerous in the world. (The Darién Gap is an approximately 60-mile stretch of wilderness that forms the only break in the 19,000-mile Pan-American Highway.) On one field trip in 1968, Duke and his colleague Joseph H. Kirkbride, Jr., PhD (now with the Smithsonian Institution’s Department of Botany) hiked across Panama from Bocas del Toro province on the Atlantic side to Chiriquí province on the Pacific side. On another field trip, they hiked from Darién province to the Colombian border.

In Panama, Duke became immersed in what became his overriding professional interest: neotropical ethnobotany. During a collective four years of field work (between 1963 and 1970) in Panama and Colombia, he collected more than 15,000 specimens of plants, as well as amphibians, arthropods, birds, fish, mammals, and reptiles that were part of the food chain, especially of the Chocó (now Embera-Wounaan) and Cuna (now Guna) tribes.18,19

Pondering “Progress” in Panama

Following his field collections, Duke spent several years in Columbus, Ohio, producing reports of his findings. His close connections with the people and environment in Panama added perspective to the debate over the plans for the controversial sea-level canal. In a letter to the editor of Biological Conservation he asked: “Where does Panama intend to deposit its solid wastes, treated or untreated? ... Where does Panama intend to put its thermal [nuclear] effluents? ... Any one of them if added in sufficient quantity at the centre of a sea-level canal, would be repugnant, if not lethal, to interoceanic migrants, including tourists. However, the sea-level canal was not proposed to accommodate tourists, but instead large ocean-going tankers.”20

In another letter to the editor of Science he asked: “Does generosity of avarice dictate that the developed nations hinder the development of underdeveloped nations with environmental considerations? ... Progress is a magic word in Panama…. It is not politic to hinder progress; politicians usually decry pollution only when their constituents are crying pollution. Such is true in few, if any developing countries. Progress, sí; pollution control, mañana.”21 Duke’s service was always to the people whose traditions he admired rather than the government entities or projects that employed him.

Duke recognized the cultural and environmental problems that often occurred when developing countries clashed with developed countries. In 1970, still at Battelle Memorial Institute, he responded to a series of 10 articles alerting the scientific community that the Vietnam defoliation program (using Agent Orange) was having serious side effects in Vietnam. Based on their experiences as tropical ecologists, Duke and his colleague John T. McGinnis sent a letter to the editor of Science recommending and outlining a practical 10-point research program on tropical reforestation that could “contribute to a successful rehabilitation of Vietnam to correct some of the side effects of the war.” As an accomplished musician, poet, and songwriter, subtle humor would often creep into his scientific writings. The letter was titled “Vietnam Refoliation.”22

With the completion of the voluminous feasibility studies on the proposed Atlantic-Pacific Interoceanic Canal, the five-member Canal Study Commission concluded, “Unfortunately, neither the technical feasibility nor the international acceptability of such an application of nuclear excavation technology has been established at this date.”23 And, surprising Duke, they also concluded that “The risk of adverse ecological consequences stemming from construction and operation of a sea-level Isthmian canal appears to be acceptable.”

From Drug Plants to Databases

Reading those conclusions, Duke raised an eyebrow, rubbed his chin, and returned to the Agricultural Research Service at the USDA in 1971 as chief of the Plant Taxonomy Laboratory, part of the Plant Genetics and Germplasm Institute. After the reorganization of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in 1972, Duke’s new assignment with the USDA, in conjunction with the United Nations, was to come up with alternative crops for narcotic plants. Viewing marijuana (Cannabis spp., Cannabaceae), coca (Erythroxylum spp., Erythroxylaceae), and poppies (Papaver spp., Papaveraceae) as economic plants, despite their legal status, he began compiling massive amounts of data on economic plants of the world. The data would not only serve as the foundation for his assigned program at the time, but would also become the foundational database for other programs that Duke directed. The list of projects including work on alternative agricultural crops, oilseed crops, alternative energy-related crops, and underutilized food crops. One of the most significant outcomes was the largest compilation of data on medicinal plants ever amassed by an individual.

By 1981, the computerized list of medicinal plants produced by Duke and colleagues at the Economic Botany Laboratory (formerly known as the Medicinal Plant Resources Laboratory) would include more than 85,000 entries.24 This would become the heart of his groundbreaking “Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases,” which he updated from the 1970s until his retirement in 1995. The database is now permanently archived, and it is still available through the National Agricultural Library and remains one of the most frequently accessed USDA databases.25‡

Recognizing that a weed in one part of the world may be a food or fodder crop elsewhere, or that a medicinal plant in one country may be an illegal narcotic in another, Duke and his team generated a list of 1,000 lesser-known crop species and developed a matrix that included information about their “ecological amplitude” from one region to another. The data matrix included taxonomic, ecological, morphological, geographical, pathological, ethnobotanical, biochemical, and economic data that grew out of the crop diversification program. His “Crop Diversification Matrix” was published in 1974,26 along with a paper on the ecological amplitudes of herbs, spices, and medicinal plants.27

The comparative data were collected from correspondents at agricultural stations and botanical gardens from around the world who provided information about economic plants that were successfully grown in their regions (without irrigation). Duke and his team complied annual precipitation data from each region, along with temperature, pH, and soil data. Later publications would also include data about nutritional values.28,29

The work also served the public interest. The Plant Genetics and Germplasm Institute held the largest taxonomic collection of seeds in the world, which served local, national, and international identification of seeds, and in several instances prevented deaths and solved the cause of fatalities. Duke’s lab also became a primary source for identifying fragmentary narcotic and poisonous plant material.30

Poppy Pursuits

Poppyseed rolls too hot or hardened

The seed will not grow in the garden;

But if the seeds are to germinate,

Narcotic laws are violated;

Poppy patches are not to be pardoned!

—From Herbalbum: An Anthology of Varicose Verse31

In the early 1970s, Duke turned his professional attention to poppies. This work took him to various parts of the world, including Iran to collect opium poppy (P. somniferum) germplasm from the plant’s center of genetic diversity, as well as to document opium production practices. In 1971, he observed poppy production among Meo ethnic minority villages in Thailand and a Yao village in Vang Vieng, Laos.32

Looking beyond the obvious abuse potential of opium poppy as a narcotic, Duke turned his attention to the plant group’s broad economic potential. He wrote about poppy’s potential as an ornamental and a source for poppy seed, poppy seed oil, high-protein poppy-cake, poppy flour, and poppy as a vegetable. He saw the potential for poppies to be used as a commercial ant feed, antimalarial, cough remedy, and salad vegetable, among other purposes.

He documented the adulteration of marijuana with opium, morphine, or codeine and speculated that this adulteration could have contributed to the perception of marijuana as a gateway to opiate abuse. He observed that where both marijuana and opiates were illegal, they were often sold in the same illicit channels, associating one with the other. He became an early advocate for the legalization of marijuana, believing this was the best way to control its economics and availability. He observed that tribal herbalists in India had both marijuana and opium in their medicine kits. How, he asked, can one eliminate opium and marijuana in populations where 80% of the people are attended by Ayurvedic or Unani-Tibb practitioners?33 His detailed observations and information on the genus Papaver could be revisited for leads on to how to deal with the modern opioid crisis. Clues might be found in the Annotated Bibliography on Opium and Oriental Poppies and Related Species, a 1973 book with Duke as lead author.34

Chief, USDA Medicinal Plant Resources Laboratory

In 1977, the USDA appointed Duke as chief of the Medicinal Plant Resources Laboratory, which was then renamed the Economic Botany Laboratory, apparently because of the controversies then emerging about herbal products in the early years of the natural food industry. From 1977 to 1981, Duke headed the USDA’s collaboration with the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to collect plant specimens and promising biomass from all over the world that might have anticancer activities. This effort was inspired by the work of NCI scientist Jonathan L. Hartwell, PhD (1906-1991). Hartwell’s pioneering work on the common mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum, Berberidaceae) resulted in the isolation of podophyllotoxin and several other compounds, which eventually led to the development of semisynthetic drugs used in chemotherapy for the treatment of testicular cancer and small cell lung cancer. In July 1960, a contract was established with NCI for the USDA to begin collections of plant materials for screening potential new anticancer compounds. Duke considered this his most important assignment during his service at the USDA, which took him to China, Egypt, South America, and elsewhere.

Between 1960 and 1980, the NCI screened approximately 35,000 species of higher (flowering) plants for activities against cancer. By 1977, approximately 3,000 of those had demonstrated reproducible activities. A small fraction of these, including mayapple, yew (Taxus spp., Taxaceae) derivatives, and others, were eventually chosen for clinical trials. Jonathan L. Hartwell’s Plants Used Against Cancer, a compilation of 11 papers originally published in Lloydia (now the Journal of Natural Products) from 1967 to 1971 on folk cancer remedies worldwide, covered more than 3,000 species and includes more than 1,000 references.35

In 1981, the first year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the NCI Natural Products Screening Program was removed from the federal budget. “I got a phone call,” Duke recalled, “that the 25-year-old program, that wow, came to an abrupt and painful end.”36 At the time, Duke was in the process of bringing back 900 pounds of plant material from China, and his colleague, Richard W. Spjut, was bringing in more than a half-ton of plant material from Australia.

In Duke’s foreword to the reprint of Hartwell’s Plants Used Against Cancer, he lamented: “I view the publication as one epitaph to the cancer-screening program involving the National Cancer Institute with the U.S. Department of Agriculture for nearly 25 years. In a blow to natural-products chemistry in the United States, the Board of Scientific Counselors, Division of Cancer Treatment, National Cancer Institute, voted on October 2, 1981, to abolish the NCI research program concerned with the development of antitumor agents from plants. I fear this signals the end of significant government-sponsored research in the United States on medicinal plants, leaving research to the pharmaceutical firms, who have shown relative disinterest in plant products.”37

After his appointment as chief of the USDA’s Medicinal Plant Resources Laboratory in 1977, Duke garnered international notoriety for his work in economic botany and medicinal plants, as well as attention from the popular press. He was profiled in People magazine’s April 4, 1977 issue, and became a fixture on the lecture circuit, speaking on medicinal plants and herbs at professional and public venues. He emerged as the public face of the federal government for all things herbal and carefully upheld a conservative approach to herb use as a government scientist. Jim Duke had to walk an uncomfortable tightrope between his personal beliefs advocating the use of herbs and at the same time emphasizing that he deferred “the prescribing of medicines” to medical professions, be they physicians or shamans.

Academic and Popular Author

Duke kept one foot in academia and the other in popular interpretation of the use of herbs. He produced roughly an equal number of technical books and popular books on herbal topics. He was quick to publish in newsletters and magazines such as Well-Being, Bu$iness of Herbs, Colt’s Foot, Prevention, Mother Earth News, and, of course, in HerbalGram.

Duke also published books and booklets, some of which were directly related to his USDA career. In 1972, he self-published a dictionary of colloquial slang terms in various Latin American language variations and dialects, and this was intended for diplomats and scientists working in the region.38 Based on his earlier field work in Panama, he also published the Isthmian Ethnobotanical Dictionary in 1972,39 a booklet that was later revised and published as a hardcover title by a publisher in India.40

With the end of USDA’s contract with the NCI, a disappointed Duke became chief of the Germplasm Resources Laboratory at USDA, but he also pursued more of his own writings and activities.

In a 1988 interview, he mused: “Feeling sorry for me, USDA let me take the momentum I had gotten in medicinal plants to go off duty and publish what has been a best-seller for CRC Press (in CRC terms), The Handbook of Medicinal Herbs, and that one came out in 1985.36

“The USDA has no medicinal plant program since that moment in 1981 when the cancer program was terminated,” he recalled in the same interview.36 “And I have a feeling this is appropriate. The USDA is into food, fiber, and fodder, and even our country is not much into medicinal plants. Why should an agency of our country be into medicinal plants? … I’m not saying this is my philosophy. I believe in medicinal plants, but the USDA really should not have much involvement in medicinal plants. So, I sort of hung myself there, didn’t I?” He laughed.

Duke looked ahead to “retirement” so he could get to work. In a letter to this author dated June 12, 1986, he predicted: “I may have to retire to the ginseng patch at 57. That’ll give me 10 good but lean years of trying to turn the U.S. away from the synthetics to the natural. Quite an unholy and unlikely crusade.”41 Retirement was not to come as quickly as he thought. Duke persisted at the USDA for another nine years before retiring at age 66.

Although his books started with massive USDA data-collection projects, he was allowed to continue to work with his USDA files to shape them into reference books. From 1981 until his retirement in 1995, the USDA permitted him to continue his medicinal plant research “off duty.”36

The majority of Duke’s book-publishing activity occurred after the USDA’s collection activities for the NCI ceased in 1981. His first professional title, Handbook of Legumes of World Economic Importance (Plenum Press, 1981), was based on data he collected about alternative crops and was a detailed survey of 140 species of legumes.42 In 1983, the first of three editions from three separate publishers of Medicinal Plants of the Bible was issued.43-45 In 1985, he co-authored (with Edward S. Ayensu) a two-volume work titled Medicinal Plants of China (Reference Publications), which featured an introductory chapter that compared North American and Chinese medicinal plants.46

Duke’s herbal publishing leaped from academia to literary humor with the self-published, staple-bound, rare Herbalbum: An Anthology of Varicose Verse (1985), which included more than 500 herbal poems — doggerels and limericks — along with a collection of bluegrass songs and their simplified notated melodies and chords. In 1986, the songs were cut into a LP vinyl record with studio bluegrass musicians, recorded in Nashville, and titled Dr. James A. Duke Presents The HerbAlbum.

In quick succession, he completed small press popular books, including a book on growing and using culinary herbs47; the Handbook of Northeastern Indian Medicinal Plants (Quarterman Publications, 1986)48; Living Liqueurs (Quarterman Publications, 1987), a practical approach to having your herb and drinking it too, with the aid of cheap vodka49; and Ginseng: A Concise Handbook (Reference Publications, 1989).50 In 1990, he coauthored Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central America (with this author, S. Foster) in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Peterson Field Guide series, with a second edition in 2000 and a third edition in 2014.  

Academic Publishing Success

The success of his 1985 CRC Handbook of Medicinal Herbs, which included 365 herbs, or an herb a day, a constant Duke mantra, led to the publication of at least a dozen more CRC titles, including academically obscure tabular compilations such as the CRC Handbook of Proximate Analysis Tables of Higher Plants with A.A. Atchley (1986) and the four-volume CRC Handbook of Agricultural Energy Potential of Developing Countries with A.A. Atchley, K. Ackerson, and P. Duke. Technically rich but readable books for knowledgeable enthusiasts include the CRC Handbook of Nuts (1989), CRC Handbook of Edible Weeds (1992), CRC Handbook of Alternative Cash Crops with J.L. duCellier (1993), and Duke’s Handbook of Medicinal Plants of Latin America with M.J. Bogenschutz-Godwin and A.R. Ottesen (2009). His CRC titles became an academic publishing franchise.

Birth of a Bestseller

In a letter dated June 26, 1995, Duke wrote to this author: “For better or worse, for me, for herbal industry, for Rodale, for USDA, I have signed a contract with Rodale to do, in one year, yet another book on herbal medicine. There are already too many. And I am not as optimistic about this one as they are. And the one year deadline forces me to retire on Sep. 30 [1995] to devote near full time to Rodale (except for an ecotour here and there, like joining you in the Amazon in October for example).”51

A year later, he was finishing the final draft of his book The Green Pharmacy, published by Rodale in 1997. It was to become a runaway bestseller with more than a million copies sold, and then spun-off into additional Rodale book titles including Dr. Duke’s Essential Herbs (1999), The Green Pharmacy: Anti-Aging Prescriptions with Michael Castleman (2001), and The Green Pharmacy: Guide to Healing Foods (2008), among others. The Green Pharmacy was one of the best-selling herbal title franchises of all time.

The Dukes purchased a six-acre farmette in Fulton, Maryland, in 1971, about 16 miles from the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service campus in Beltsville, Maryland. The Dukes christened the farm “Herbal Vineyard.” It was here that Duke “retired” and created a four-acre herb garden with hundreds of plant species, in plots arranged by medical conditions, following the chapters in The Green Pharmacy. Thousands of people have visited and been inspired by the rural Maryland garden, and countless individuals were introduced to the botanical diversity of the tropics through Jim’s leading more than 60 tours to the Amazon, Costa Rica, and elsewhere during his productive retirement years. Many of these tours happened via the American Botanical Council’s “Pharmacy from the Rainforest” ethnobotany ecotours, which were continuing education approved for pharmacists and other health professionals.

Remember This

Jane P. Gates, of the Alternative Farming Systems Information Center at the USDA National Agricultural Library, asked Duke in a 1988 interview, “What would you like to be remembered for?”52 Standing barefoot in his garden with his signature plaid shorts, Duke replied:

Something I haven’t done yet. I would like to be remembered for turning around the trend to the natural medicine from the synthetic medicine. I think we made a mistake there, because through evolution, my genes and immune system have already experienced all of the poisons that are here in this garden, or many of them, because my grandparent’s grandparents ate or used these things for one thing or another, such that my genes have already touched those poisons, my genes have not experienced tomorrow’s synthetics. Two hundred years ago, all of our medicines were natural. Today, still, 25% of prescription drugs are based on higher plants and almost half of our prescription drugs are based on lower plants, higher plants, and animals, so even today 50%, or almost 50%, are natural. So, I would like to see that [we] go back to 100% natural. I really believe that natural is safer than the synthetics.

Steven Foster is an author, photographer, and herbalist, and he serves on the Board of Trustees of the American Botanical Council. His most recent book is the third edition of the Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), which he co-authored with James A. Duke, PhD.

* James B. Duke, 1856-1925, best known as the father of the modern cigarette, created “The Duke Endowment,” a trust that would result in renaming Trinity College to Duke University. James A. Duke is not related to James B. Duke.

Jim Duke’s family treatments on the flora of Panama are published as 10 separate papers in various issues, volumes 47-49 (1961-1963), in the Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Until several months before his passing, Duke continued his activities as an avid compiler of voluminous medicinal plant information into the successor databases, known as "Father Nature’s Farmacy."


  1. Miller S, Morehouse M. Jungle Jim: To botanist Jim Duke herbal healing is no fad—it’s the best medicine. People. February 1, 1999:113-117.
  2. Gates JP. Part 1. Introduction and early life. Oral history interview with Dr. James A. Duke. Beltsville, MD: US Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Library, Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, Videocassette No. 629, 1988. Available at: www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/james-duke.
  3. Gates JP. Part 2. Early botanical interests and early memories. Oral history interview with Dr. James A. Duke. Beltsville, MD: U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Library, Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, Videocassette No. 629, 1988. Available at: www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/james-duke.
  4. Duke JA. Letter to Mrs. Hillary Rodham Clinton, April 5, 1993.
  5. Gates JP. Part 3. Early botanical interests and early memories. Oral history interview with Dr. James A. Duke. Beltsville, MD: US Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Library, Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, Videocassette No. 629, 1988. Available at: www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/james-duke.
  6. Anon. Billboard. August 23, 1947:118.
  7. Warlick T, Warlick L. The WBT Briarhoppers: Eight Decades of a Bluegrass Band Made for Radio. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland & Company, Inc.; 2007.
  8. Gates JP. Part 4. College, military service and post graduate work. Oral history interview with Dr. James A. Duke. Beltsville, MD: US Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Library, Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, Videocassette No. 629, 1988. Available at: www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/james-duke.
  9. Radford RE, Ahles HE, Bell CR. Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press; 1968.
  10. Gates JP. Part 5. Work in the botany of Latin America. Oral history interview with Dr. James A. Duke. Beltsville, MD: US Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Library, Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, Videocassette No. 629, 1988. Available at: www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/james-duke.
  11. Dwyer JD. Notes on the Lecythidaceae of Panama. Ann Mo Bot Gard. 1965;52(3):351:363.
  12. King RM, Robinson H. Studies in the Eupatorieae (Asteraceae) CXX. Additions to the Genus Koanophyllon in Panama. Phytologia. 1974;28(1):67-72.
  13. Dwyer JD. Rubiaceae. In: Woodson RE, Schery RW. Flora of Panama, Part IX. Ann Mo Bot Gard. 1980;67:371.
  14. Dwyer JD, Hayden SMV. Notes on woody Rubiaceae of tropical America. Ann Mo Bot Gard. 1967;54:138-146.
  15. Dwyer JD. Dukea. A new genus of the Rubiaceae (Tribe Mussaendeae). Ann Mo Bot Gard. 1966;53(3):360-367.
  16. Duke JA. Keys for the identification of seedlings of some prominent woody species in eight forest types in Puerto Rico. Ann Mo Bot Gard. 1965;52(3):324-350.
  17. Duke JA. Darienita’s Dietary. Bioenvironmental and radiological-safety feasibility studies, Atlantic-Pacific Interoceanic Canal, 112 pp., 1970. Abstract 202 in Environmental Plutonium Data Base Group, Environmental Sciences Division, eds. Environmental Aspects of Plutonium and Other Elements. A Selected, Annotated Bibliography. Oak Ridge, TN: US Atomic Energy Commission. ORNL-EIS-73-21 (Suppl. 1):200 August, 1973.]
  18. Duke JA. Ethnobotanical observations on the Choco Indians. Econ Bot. 1970;24(3):344-366.
  19. Duke JA. Ethnobotanical observation on the Cuna Indians. Econ Bot. 1975;29(3):278-293.
  20. Duke JA. The sea-level canal accord? Biological Conservation. 1971;4(1):17.
  21. Duke JA. Aquatic ecosystems. Science. 1972;176:582.
  22. Duke JD, McGinnis, JT. Vietnam refoliation. Science. 1970;107:807.
  23. Atlantic-Pacific Interoceanic Canal Study Commission, eds. Interoceanic Canal Studies. Washington, DC. 1970.
  24. Duke JA, Wain KK. Medicinal plants of the world. Computer index with more than 85,000 entries. 1981 (unpublished).
  25. Dr. Duke’s Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases. National Agricultural Library, US Department of Agriculture website. Available at: https://phytochem.nal.usda.gov/phytochem/search. Accessed January 24, 2018.
  26. Duke JA, Terrell EE. Crop Diversification Matrix: Introduction. Taxon. 1974;23(5/6):759-799.
  27. Duke JA, Hurst SJ. Ecological amplitudes of herbs, spices and medicinal plants. Lloydia. 1975;38(5):404-410.
  28. Duke JA. Vegetarian vitachart. Quart J Crude Drug Res. 1977;15:45-66.
  29. Duke JA. Nutritional values for crop diversification matrix. Ecol. Food and Nutrition. 1977;6:39-48.
  30. Duke JA, Moseman JG. Papaveraceous Polyclave. Critical Reviews in Toxicology. 1974;3(1):1-95.
  31. Duke JA. Herbalbum: An Anthology of Varicose Verse. JA Duke: Fulton, MD; 1985.
  32. Duke JA. Notes on Meo and Yao poppy cultivation. Phytologia. 1974;28(1):5-8.
  33. Duke JA. Utilization of Papaver. Econ Bot. 1973;27(4):390-400.
  34. Duke JA, Gunn CR, Leppik EE, Reed CF, Solt ML, Terrell EE. Annotated Bibliography on Opium and Oriental Poppies and Related Species. Beltsville, MD: Agricultural Research Service, US Department of Agriculture. ARS-NE 28; December, 1973.
  35. Hartwell JA. Plants Used Against Cancer: A Survey. Lincoln, MA: Quarterman Publications, Inc.; 1982.
  36. Gates JP. Part 6. Medicinal plants and publications. Oral history interview with Dr. James A. Duke. Beltsville, MD: US Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Library, Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, Videocassette No. 629, 1988. Available at: www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/james-duke
  37. Duke JA. Foreword. In: Hartwell J. Plants Used Against Cancer: A Survey. Lincoln, MA: Quarterman Publications, Inc.; 1982:v-vii.
  38. Duke JA. Lewd Latin Lexicon. Fulton, MD: JA Duke; 1972.
  39. Duke JA. Isthmian Ethnobotanical Dictionary. Fulton, MD: JA Duke; 1972.
  40. Duke JA. Isthmian Ethnobotanical Dictionary. 3rd ed. Johdpur, India: Scientific Publishers; 1986.
  41. Duke JA. Letter to Steven Foster. June 12, 1986.
  42. Duke JA. Handbook of Legumes of World Economic Importance. New York, NY: Plenum Press; 1981.
  43. Duke JA. Medicinal Plants of the Bible. New York, NY: Conch Publications; 1983.
  44. Duke JA. Herbs of the Bible: 2000 Years of Plant Medicine. Loveland, CO: Interweaver Press; 1999.
  45. Duke JA, Duke PAK, duCellier, JL. Duke’s Handbook of Medicinal Plants of the Bible. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 2008.
  46. Duke JA, Ayensu ES. Medicinal Plants of China. 2 vols. Algonac, MI: Reference Publications; 1985.
  47. Duke JA. Culinary Herbs: A Potpourri. New York, NY: Trado-Medic Books; 1985.
  48. Duke JA Handbook of Northeastern Indian Medicinal Plants. Lincoln, MA: Quarterman Publications; 1986.
  49. Duke JA. Living Liqueurs. Lincoln, MA: Quarterman Publications, Inc.; 1987.
  50. Duke JA. Ginseng: A Concise Handbook. Algonac, MI: Reference Publications; 1989.
  51. Duke JA. Letter to Steven Foster, June 26, 1995.
  52. Gates JP. Part 9. Farming practices, evening primrose, thoughts on the future. Oral history interview with Dr. James A. Duke. Beltsville, MD: US Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Library, Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, Videocassette No. 629, 1988. Available at: www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/james-duke.