The Herb HuntersThe Herb Hunters Around the world, from alpine heights to sluggish deltas, and even down into the coralline depths of the Pacific, legmen for U.S. medicine were busy last week in a single-minded search.
The objective: folk remedies, plants, lichens or marine slimes that might, through modern chemical analysis, yield useful drugs for treating man's ills, from toothache to cancer.
In some regions, notably South America and Africa, the herb hunters were all over. Led by Dr. John Wurdack, the New York Botanical Garden's Expedition No. 21 was at the headwaters of the Orinoco. Seeking new or rare plants, its professional botanists were especially alert for any with medicinal promise.
On five continents, 750 physicians and other medical people at 170 Seventh-day Adventist hospitals and clinics run by California's College of Medical Evangelists were collecting plants, getting patients to bring in samples of folk remedies, sometimes peering over the shoulders of witch doctors to see what went into their brews. Lion Fat.
Like many similar efforts, the College of Medical Evangelists' search was bankrolled by business. In the hope that it would turn up marketable items, New York's Sterling Drug Inc. had just underwritten the four-year program for $240,000. Virtually all major U.S. drug companies had herb hunters afield, either directly employed or under contract.
All their people have been enlisted as part-time hunters: when Francis C. Brown, president of New Jersey's Schering Corp., was in Port-au-Prince for the recent opening of the Haiti Psychiatric Institute, he heard of a red nut used by voodoo practitioners to calm disturbed patients, brought back samples that are now under laboratory test.
Schering chemists are also analyzing a concoction which an African vendor labeled Mafuta Bhubesi—lion fat. The costly and intensive search for what the oldtime druggist called botanicals is based on solid historical fact. Checking an old wives' brew used in Shropshire to bolster failing hearts, William Withering found in 1775 that the active ingredient came from the common foxglove, thus stumbled upon digitalis—still a sovereign remedy.
Only 28 years ago, Western-trained physicians in India concluded that there was more magic than myth in ancient snakeroot remedies for high blood pressure and some emotional disturbances, pointed the way to the isolation of reserpine—now flourishing as a multimillion-dollar prescription item.
Ephedrine, which was isolated only in 1885, and is valuable in treating asthma, was the active ingredient in Ma Huang, a herbal drug the Chinese had been using for 5,000 years.
Leafy Poultice. There is good reason to believe that there are many more potentially valuable drugs where these came from. Says Dr. Alfred Taylor of the University of Texas' Austin campus: "In plants we have more compounds than the chemists could synthesize in 1,000 years. And as a rule, the naturally occurring compounds are less likely to be poisonous than the synthetic, because they've developed in association with life."
Cancer Researcher Taylor's team is testing plant extracts against cancer in mice, reports "more hopeful results with the natural compounds than with synthetics."
Hope of finding a treatment for human cancer is stimulated by incidents such as the one related by Dr. Bruce W. Halstead (until recently with the C.M.E.).
An Indian walked into a mission hospital in Nicaragua with a huge growth on his cheek. The mission doctor took a specimen, diagnosed it as skin cancer (basal cell carcinoma), told the patient he must have surgery and X-ray treatment at once. The man refused and vanished into the jungle. A witch doctor treated him with a leafy poultice. Three months later the patient was back, "his face was clear as a baby's bottom.''
In the backwoods of India, several tribes brew a herb tea which lowers the blood sugar—a natural oral treatment for which Western diabetics waited until a mere three years ago.
Dr. Halstead, 39, a restless and imaginative scientist, is launching a World Life Research Institute in Colton, Calif.
Its fact-finding franchise will extend from lion fat to Mexican yams (major source of raw material for the cortisone family of steroid hormones) to submarine slime.
Already noted as an authority on poisonous fish (TIME, Feb. 11, 1952), Dr. Halstead is also a skindiver. Groping near the 100-ft. sounding in the Galápagos Islands he has scraped off marine growths from which antibiotic substances (still in the lab-testing stage) have been isolated.
The stakes in the herb hunt are high: for the scientist, the possibility of such fame as came to Penicillin Discoverer Fleming; for the company that gets a year's jump on its competitors with a widely useful product, $2,000,000 or $3,000,000 in profit—a hundred times more for a breakthrough against major forms of cancer; for mankind in general, cheaper and more effective drugs for many ills, and always the hope of victory over a still-defiant killer or crippler.