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In Pursuit of Potions

Donald McGraw

Medicine Quest: In Search of Nature's Healing Secrets. Mark J. Plotkin. xvi + 224 pp. Viking Press, 2000. $22.95.

Ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin, known to a wide readership through his earlier book, Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice, here treats us to another tour de force about medicines available from the natural world. This is a collection of stories about natural products being found by searchers in jungles, at sea and at the bench. Only in the final chapter does Plotkin relate his own experiences; in the humid backwoods of Amazonia, under a shaman's direction, he partakes of ayahuasca ("vine of the soul"), a fearsome, bitter liquid that sends him on a startling and enlightening journey of the mind. Plotkin also describes being treated for an ear infection by a shaman using sap dripped from a cut branch; a photograph of this scene appears in the June 2000 issue of National Geographic, but not in Medicine Quest, whose only illustrations are charcoal drawings at the start of each chapter.

The vignettes in Medicine Quest rarely involve Plotkin's own specialty, flowering plants, but instead focus on animals (frogs, snakes, leeches, cone snails, corals), insects (ants, blister beetles), fungi and bacteria as sources of powerful drugs, insecticides, psychotropics and toxins, a wealth of molecules useful in their own right, and moieties that, with proper manipulation, have become or may become valuable chemical entities. Plotkin relates the histories of many drugs and other useful compounds derived from nature that have been signally important over the past 60 years and also peppers every chapter with descriptions of new sources of potentially lifesaving medicines.

The book is aimed at a popular audience—a researcher is referred to as "Indiana Jones with an aqualung"; chapter titles include "Fungus Among Us," "Drugs from Bugs" and "Plants of the Apes" (the latter reports the latest findings of zoopharmacognosy—the study of self-medication in animals). A curious high school student would not find the writing or scientific content overly challenging. But the work also has something to offer scientists, for it reports instances in which serendipity and cross-fertilization between widely disparate fields have led to discoveries of immense importance to humankind. Scientists may well find points of departure for their own studies, and perhaps Plotkin's book will encourage additional cross-fertilization and interdisciplinary creativity.

The work could certainly have benefited from more careful copyediting (it contains typographical errors, and a couple of names are not gotten right—it should be Christian, not Cristof, Gram, and sulfa pioneer Gerhard Dogmagk is sometimes referred to as "Gerald"). However, the narrative is so gripping that the reader is little bothered by these imperfections.

This collection of tales about those who are seeking out and developing the next generation of therapeutic wonders should hold surprises even for well-informed scientists.—Donald J. McGraw, University of San Diego

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