FWD 2 HerbalGram: Meet ABC Board Member Michael J. Balick: Award-Winning Ethnobotanist and Conservationist

Issue: 82 Page: 14-15

Meet ABC Board Member Michael J. Balick: Award-Winning Ethnobotanist and Conservationist

by Lindsay Stafford Mader

HerbalGram14-15. 2009;82:14-15 American Botanical Council

Michael Balick, PhD, became fascinated with plants at 5 years old, when he worked with his grandparents in their vegetable garden in Pennsylvania (M. Balick, oral communication, February 3, 2009). Observing the rate at which tiny seeds transformed into full-grown vegetables captivated young Dr. Balick’s imagination as he watched the garden grow through the seasons.

From early childhood, Dr. Balick’s interest in plants has remained steady. He studied agriculture at the University of Delaware and biology at Harvard University, where he earned his master’s degree and doctorate, focusing on ethnobotany, the study of the relationship between plants and people across cultures. For more than 3 decades, Dr. Balick has studied ethnobotany and has become a well-known and respected specialist in the field, even helping to transform it into a scholarly and popular discipline recognized around the world.1

The study of plants and people is the primary focus of the New York Botanical Garden’s (NYBG) Institute of Economic Botany, which Dr. Balick helped found in 1981.2 He is now the director and philecology curator of the Institute and NYBG’s vice president for botanical science, as well as a long-time member of the American Botanical Council’s (ABC) Board of Trustees. Dr. Balick has authored or co-authored more than 17 books and monographs and more than 100 scientific papers. He has also conducted field work in 56 biologically and culturally diverse places around the world, such as Central America, the Amazon Valley, Micronesia, and Northeast Brazil. He was recently named the Society for Economic Botany’s 2009 Distinguished Economic Botanist, along with the late Nina Etkin, PhD.3

“Mike is an amazing guy in that he has been everywhere and done everything,” said Jim Miller, PhD, dean and vice president of science at NYBG’s International Plant Science Center and a friend and colleague of Dr. Balick for almost 20 years (oral communication, February 6, 2009). “The breadth of his research experience provides him with a perspective that few people have.”

Among numerous projects, Dr. Balick has conducted ethnopharmacological investigations in Belize, where he and Rosita Arvigo, DN, founded the Ix Chel Tropical Research Foundation to preserve the region’s culture and healing traditions and to promote sustainable organic cultivation to reduce rainforest destruction.2 He has worked in Costa Rica to help build a major botanical garden and the Semillas Sagradas, a garden of medicinal plants, as well as worked on the domestication of native plants in the Amazon Valley and Northeastern Brazil.1 He has also been a part of a team that surveyed Latin America and the Caribbean for plants with potential anti-cancer and anti-AIDS properties, eventually testing thousands of species.2

“[Dr. Balick’s] studies have become models and inspiration for the work of other people,” said Dr. Miller. “The lesson that the world has learned from him is how research of plants and traditional knowledge about their uses can inform conservation and help to implement conservation.”

A key tenet of his career, Dr. Balick works with many indigenous cultures to document their traditional plant knowledge and develop sustainable-use systems, while ensuring that the benefits are always shared with the local communities.2 In recognition of these efforts, he was awarded the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) 2004 International Scientific Cooperation Award.1

“Mike showed great respect and genuine reverence for all the people that we worked with,” said Steven King, PhD, about working with Dr. Balick in Columbia (e-mail, February 13, 2009). Dr. King, the vice president of ethnobotanical research at Napo Pharmaceuticals, an ethnobotanically-based pharmaceutical company, has known Dr. Balick for 27 years and said that he has led the field in benefit-sharing with local peoples, both conceptually and tangibly.

For Dr. Balick, living with indigenous groups far away from home, with minimal provisions, feels natural because he was raised to know the importance of nature (M. Balick, oral communication, February 3, 2009).

“I think for me, every day living in the small villages is different than the next day. It is full of discovery, education, humility, wisdom. The opportunity to serve science, sustainable development, and human rights in this particular way is a great career opportunity,” he said.

Currently, Dr. Balick is continuing his work in New York City’s Dominican community, where project leaders are publishing a manual and curriculum on plants commonly used by the Dominican community to help healthcare providers with Dominican patients.

He is also involved in an ongoing program on the island of Pohnpei of the Federated States of Micronesia that has ecological, ethnobotanical and floristic components. With a grant from the National Science Foundation, the project team is now comparing the effects of various land management systems for the cultivation of kava (Piper methysticum, Piperaceae) on the watershed and biodiversity of the streams and forests. His latest book, Ethnobotany of Pohnpei: Plants, People and Island Culture (University of Hawaii Press/The New York Botanical Garden, 2009) was written with a group of 15 international and local researchers and codifies the ethnomedical and traditional agricultural practices of this island group. The book is copyrighted by the Mwoalen Wahu Ileilehn Pohnpei (the Pohnpei Council of Traditional Leaders) under whose direction the program is being carried out, said Dr. Balick.

“It was partly due to his work with the indigenous people of Pohnpei that Mike received the Natural Product Association’s Rachel Carson Award in 2007,” said Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of ABC. “The short speech he gave in accepting the award speaks volumes about his respect for native peoples, and his innate humility. He accepted the award not for himself and his large body of ethnobotanical field work and scholarship, but on behalf of the people of Pohnpei who have been so generous and hospitable to him.”

Always working on projects abroad or in the United States, applying for grants, or teaching classes, Dr. Balick’s work ethic has been described as tireless and focused. Nonetheless, his personality creates a pleasant atmosphere for those who work with and know him personally, and he is always generous with his time, guidance and advice, said Dr. King.

“[Mike] taught me to play and laugh and be joyful while doing not always fun, and at times difficult, field work,” said Dr. King. “Mike is Mike in and out of his professional life. He is playful, irreverent, compassionate, curious, opinionated, loyal, and dedicated to life.”

—Lindsay Stafford

  1. Ethnobotanist Michael J. Balick receives prestigious international science award [press release]. Austin, TX: American Botanical Council; February 17, 2005.

  2. Michael J. Balick. New York Botanical Garden Web site. Available at: http://www.nybg.org/science/scientist_profile.php?id_scientist=1. Accessed February 9, 2009.

  3. Michael J. Balick and Nina Etkin are recipients of the Society for Economic Botany Distinguished Economic Botanist Award [press release]. St. Louis, MO: Society for Economic Botany; January 21, 2009.