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Dr. Duke in the Field
Dr. Duke in May 1968 during his field work in Darien, Panama.
Dr. Duke in May 1968 during his field work in Darien, Panama.
Photo by Dr. Joe Kirkbride

Dr. Duke’s passion for traditional medicine was sparked in the 1960s. He was working at the U.S. Department of Agriculture but was contracted as a botanist for a private research project in Panama. There he observed other cultures using plants for medicinal purposes. Over this two-year period, he visited the Indigenous people of the rainforest and learned about their medicinal practices.

Guides from Panama’s Indigenous population, like the Kuna and Choco Indians, led Dr. Duke through the forest and shared their knowledge of plants. He documented his observations about how they lived and what they ate and interviewed them about their use of local herbs and plants as medicine. He returned to the United States determined to focus his career on herbal medicines and ethnobotany—the study of the traditional knowledge and customs of a culture concerning its use of plants.

The Kuna of Panama exemplify the significant relationship between plants and Indigenous people. According to the Kuna, plants were created and invested with spiritual powers to defend the life and soul of the people. Aside from more spiritual healing practices involving chants, there are Kuna specialists called the inaduled who study medicinal plant use. They also prescribe and administer herbal remedies.

Today, few Kuna botanical specialists remain in the area. Traditional medicine has been drastically altered with the introduction of Western education to their area. Some young see their elders as superstitious and old-fashioned. Plants and Animals in the Life of the Kuna provides more information on the Kuna of Panama.

Inspired by medical practices like those of the Kuna, Dr. Duke has worked for over forty years to share with others how herbs can be used to stay healthy. His work includes books, databases, articles, and a teaching garden to share with others.

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