FWD 2 HerbalGram: Meet Norman Farnsworth: Spotlight on ABC Board of Trustee

Issue: 78 Page: 10-11

Meet Norman Farnsworth: Spotlight on ABC Board of Trustee

by Kelly Saxton

HerbalGram. 200878:10-11 American Botanical Council

Norman R. Farnsworth, PhD, is a legendary pharmacognosist, probably most famous for his idea of the pioneering natural prod-ucts database NAPRALERT. This database was launched in 1975 and contains pertinent information about natural products,

including medicinal plants, microbes, marine organisms, and fungi.1

Professor Farnsworth received his PhD in 1959 from the Univer-sity of Pittsburgh. He helped implement the first PhD program in pharmacognosy during his tenure there and was the first to chair this program after he became a professor. He taught at Pitt until 1970 and then moved to the College of Pharmacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). At UIC he serves as a research professor of pharmacognosy, directs the pharmacognosy graduate program, directs the Program for Collab-orative Research in the Pharmaceutical Sciences, and was named Senior University Scholar in 1988.1 He developed the World Health Organiza-tion (WHO) Collaborating Center for Natural Products Research, one of the world's leading natural products and medicinal plant research centers, and he also serves as director of the UIC/National Institutes of Health (NIH) Dietary Supplements Research Center, funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). As head of the pharmacognosy graduate program at UIC, he has mentored more than 100 PhD and 30 MS students. He said he has 'personally” mentored about 30 PhD and 5 MS graduate students as well as mentored or co-mentored 30 post-doctoral fellows. He also co-founded the journal Phytomedicine, the International Journal of Phytotherapy and Phytophar-macology, along with Professor Hildebert Wagner, PhD, at the University of Munich, the journal's editor-in-chief. Among his many achievements and activities, Dr. Farnsworth is also a founding Trustee of the American Botanical Council (ABC).

'In the international world of pharmacognosy and natural products research Norm Farnsworth is widely known and universally respected,” said ABC Founder and Executive Director Mark Blumenthal. "He is a force of nature in the research world. ABC is proud and deeply grateful that Norm is one of our founding board members and that with all of his many responsibilities, organizations, and affiliations, he continues to participate in ABC policy and governance."

Dr. Farnsworth is currently the Distinguished Professor of Pharmacognosy at UIC (as of 2001), and graduate students in his program have described the work environment he has created there as 'a tight-knit family.” One such previous student is Daniel Fabricant, PhD, who said that he chose UIC because of Dr. Farnsworth and his legacy there. 'He's a straight shooter, he doesn't put on airs, and he's very disarming. He's easy to gravitate to because of these unique qualities,” said Dr. Fabricant (oral communication, February 27, 2008). 'He's been my mentor, a hero, and a friend.”

'He has launched a thousand careers, including my own,” said Gail Mahady, PhD, a clinical pharmacognosist who also met Dr. Farnsworth during graduate school (e-mail, February 6, 2008). 'For that I will be eternally grateful.”

Dr. Farnsworth was also one of the founding fathers of the American Society of Pharmacognosy (ASP), which began in 1959. He made the initial negotiations to publish Lloydia, now the Journal of Natural Products (JNP), co-published by the American Chemical Society and ASP (Lloy-dia was the original name because of famous medicinal plant researcher John Uri Lloyd2). Dr. Farnsworth has served on JNP's Editorial Advisory Board since 1961.2 He even earned two silver stars in the Korean War and was chosen by President Clinton to serve on the White House Commis-sion on Dietary Supplement Labels. What's the reason for his 'jack of all trades” competence?

'As [Farnsworth] always says, ‘a pharmacognosist is a jack of all trades and master of none,'” said Dr. Mahady. 'But I think he's a master in natu-ral products.”

Dr. Fabricant shared an anecdote as proof of Dr. Farnsworth's all-encompassing knowledge in which he brought a date to Farnsworth's 70th birthday party: 'He said she wasn't right for me,” said Dr. Fabricant.

'A few weeks later we did indeed breakup, because, well, she wasn't right for me.” Dr. Farnsworth tells this story to his students often to show that though they may not like his advice, he'd never steer them wrong.

Another phrase used to describe Dr. Farnsworth is the '"quintessential renaissance man," as he was so-called in an editorial in JNP by Harry

H.S. Fong, PhD, Geoffrey A. Cordell, PhD, and A. Douglas Kinghorn, PhD, JNP's editor-in-chief.3 'To fully depict Farnsworth, one needs to write a book,” said Dr. Fong (e-mail, March 7, 2008). 'Everyone who has come into contact with Norman Farnsworth has a ‘Farnsworth story' or two to tell.”

Dr. Fong, a friend of 53 years, shared several anecdotes about Dr. Farnsworth. One story involved Dr. Farnsworth's propensity for cigars. 'On every lab bench and in every office that Norm has spent any length of time at the University of Pittsburgh and at University of Illinois at Chicago, one will find a littering of chewed remains of Marsh Wheeling cigar butts,” said Dr. Fong. 'In fact, such mementos can even be found in Munich, Germany. When he was a visiting professor in Prof. H. Wagner's lab in 1966, I had the ‘pleasure' of regularly mailing boxes of Marsh Wheeling cigars labeled as ‘Investigational Material: Of no commercial interest' to the Institute in Munich.”

However, when it comes to picking out Dr. Farnsworth's most impor-tant accomplishment, Dr. Fong could not choose: 'It is not possible to pinpoint any one piece of Norm's work as being most influential and important,” said Dr. Fong. 'Rather, it is his body of work that will consti-tute his legacy.”

ABC has created the Norman R. Farnsworth Excellence in Botanical Research Award in which ABC acknowledges international researchers for their contributions to medicinal plant research. Recipients thus far have been Joe Betz, PhD, of the Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institutes of Health (2005); Prof. Edzard Ernst, MD, PhD, of the Penin-sula Medical School of the University of Exeter in the UK (2006); and Prof. Hildebert Wagner of the University of Munich (2007).

Dr. Farnsworth and his wife Priscilla established a grant for a graduate student interested in natural products last year intended to be awarded in Fall 2008; their original contribution totaled ,000. The grant has grown to over ,000 through public donation, according to Lawton Snyder, director of development at University of Pittsburgh's School of Pharmacy (e-mail, March 11, 2008). Contributions to this award can be made by visiting www.pitt.edu.


  1. Hunt L. Farnsworth named distinguished professor at University of Illinois. HerbalGram. 2001;53:16.
  2. Cavaliere C. Journal of Natural Products dedicates special issue to Farnsworth. HerbalGram. 2006;72:14.
  3. Fong HHS, Cordell GA, Kinghorn AD. Special issue in honor of Norman R. Farnsworth. Journal of Natural Products. March 2006;69(3):311–-313.