Dr. Daniel Moerman – SEB Distinguished Economic Botanist 2015

Society for Economic Botany, Distinguished Economic Botanist 2015 – An Interview with Dr. Daniel Moerman

by John de la Parra

Reproduced from the SEB Newsletter “Plants and People” Spring and Fall 2015


This year, the Society for Economic Botany celebrates the achievements of Dr. Daniel Moerman by selecting him as the 2015 Distinguished Economic Botanist.

Dr. Daniel Moerman is the William Stirton Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and is one of the most influential ethnobotanists of our time.
He also has been an active and integral member of the Society for Economic Botany for decades. From 2004 to 2008, he was Editor in Chief of Economic Botany and was President of the International Society for Ethnopharmacology from 2006 to 2008. Dr. Moerman is particularly well known for his work documenting and studying the plants of the Native American people. His database and subsequent book Native American Ethnobotany have been recognized as monumental masterpieces of scholarship. Even the abridged edition of Native American Medicinal Plants is noted as “the most comprehensive and authoritative listing of Native North American plant use for medicines available anywhere” (Moerman 2009). His dedicated study of these cultures was inspired by the thoughtfulness and perseverance of the indigenous people: “Their diligence and energy, their insight and creativity, these are the marks of true scientists, dedicated to gaining meaningful and useful knowledge from a complex and confusing world”.  As a self-described “unhyphenated anthropologist,” his work has also included important investigations into the effects of belief and meaning on human health. Broadly and beautifully, he has stated that “Meaning affects life; Life affects meaning” (Moerman 2002). His essential belief that a human being is “simultaneously a biological and cultural creature” has led to influential work on the ideas, implications, and cultural history behind the “placebo effect”.

Moerman, D.E. 1998. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.

Moerman, D.E. 2002. Meaning, Medicine and the “Placebo Effect”. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Moerman, D.E. 2009. Native American Medicinal Plants: An Ethnobotanical Dictionary. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.

Each year, the Society for Economic Botany organizes its annual conference where leaders in the field of economic botany and ethnobiology meet to discuss and present exciting new scientific advances, network, greet old and new friends and welcome new members. Students are particularly encouraged to become members of the Society for Economic Botany and join us in our journey to advance the world’s knowledge and recognition of the many relationships between plants and people.


Econobot Moerman2

Dr. Daniel Moerman at the 1979 annual meeting of the Society for Economic Botany. Economic Botany, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar., 1979), pp. 88-89. This image also has several other DEBs: Morton, Tyler, Duke, and Lewis.

John de la Parra (Jd): What led you to the world of ethnomedicine?

Dr. Daniel Moerman (DM): Pure chance. As I said in my DEB talk, I accidentally fell upon plants as a way to gain access to informants in South Carolina (St. Helena Island); they liked talking about them, and after a while, they allowed me to talk with them about family life and organization, which was what I really was interested in. But some time later, the plants became more interesting to me than family organization.

Jd: You’ve traveled widely and explored cultures around the world. How have you chosen where to settle and lay down roots?

DM: My wife and I built a lovely home on 20 acres of woods and fields where we share a long boundary with a 160-acre natural area. Roots are pretty deep! I keep busy as an Associate Editor of Economic Botany, on the editorial board of Journal of Ethnopharmacology. So, I do a lot of reviewing. I’ve been publishing an article or two every year; most recently an attempt to explain to archaeologists how they might identify medicinal plants in excavations (just out in Metheny and Beaudry’s Archaeology of Food (Rowman and Littlefield, 2015). And I do a lot of woodworking, especially woodturning on my lathe.

Jd: You have famously called yourself an “unhyphenated anthropologist,” yet you have delved very deeply into specific subfields and become recognized as an expert in several specialized subjects. Can you describe your academic and/ or professional philosophy with regard to this?

DM: I grew up in an old-fashioned anthropology department where one had to master all fields in anthropology: Cultural anthro, Bio anthro, and archaeology. So for me the point was the study of human beings as simultaneously biological and cultural creatures. I don’t feel the boundaries that some people seem to feel. I spent a number of my early years doing archaeology along the Missouri River in South Dakota; my first real written work was done there. So, an unhyphenated anthropologist, as at home in one area as in the others.Moerman

Jd: You’ve had a long and successful career—do you have any general life and/or professional advice for young and aspiring ethnobotanists?

DM: I know it’s sort of corny and not much in favor these days, but I firmly believe one should do what they love most. Then find a way to make a living at it. Not the other way around. I can’t tell you how many miserable students I’ve dealt with who told me they were studying (business, dentistry, medicine, higher education administration—no, that’s a joke) and hated it. I told them that when they found themselves just wishing it were tomorrow or next week when was over, they should realize that they were wishing their lives away, and they would regret it, sooner or later.

Jd: Is there a study or collaboration that you wish you could find time to work on (past or present)? DM: Yes. I regret never having been able to do real fieldwork in the Amazon. If he’d been older, and I’d been younger, I’d have loved to work with Glenn Shepard in the Peruvian Amazon. His work amazes me with its depth and beauty. I also wish I knew a lot more about music and art.

Jd: What do you read or study in your free time?

DM: I’m currently reading The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman, a nonfiction imagination of what the world would look like if human beings disappeared. It’s a wonderful thought experiment. I recently reread a similar book, Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart, a fictional account of a similar “event” where the vast majority of people die quickly of a deadly disease, and what happens then. Toward the end, the central character, Isherwood Williams (who survives the disease somehow), is teaching the few children how to make arrowheads out of old coins. Both books are compelling cases for the incredible magnitude of the human effects on the planet. I’m also reading Nancy Turner’s magnum opus Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge (2 volumes), and Bill Gammage’s book The Biggest Estate on Earth, on the impact of Australian Aborigines on Australia through burning. Both amazing and fascinating works. I also read a lot of magazines: NY Times Sunday Mag; Atlantic; Harpers; New Yorker. Plus a number of woodworking mags: Fine Woodworking, American Woodturner, etc.

Jd: We have noticed a decline in membership, especially with students. Do you have any advice for reversing this trend?

DM: Offer free memberships for a year; second year $10, third year full price. Get foundation support to help students go to meetings. And a controversial one: focus more on North America, and less on the rest of the world, so travel costs are more manageable.

Jd: Are there any trends in the world of ethnobotany that you dislike?

DM: I just read that a half dozen healers in an indigenous group in the Western Amazon had collaborated on writing a book about their medical treatments of the sick and ill. However, they are keeping it to themselves, in their own language, because they don’t want drug companies to “steal their knowledge.” This movement to privatize knowledge is arguably in large part due to ethnobotanists in the past who have dramatically overstated the value of non-western medicines for big pharma. (Count up the ethnobotanically derived drugs in the past 50 years, and you will have about 2 – Catharanthus? What would the other one be? I don’t think anyone got rich off of “either” of them. Taxus, widely utilized in North America, was discovered in a random screen.)

Jd: Any trends you are happy to see?

DM: I’m fascinated by the emergence of contemporary urban research on botanicals; like Ina Vandebroek’s work in the Bronx; work on urban gardening. I am also fascinated to watch the growth of understanding, little by little, of the extent of pre-contact Amazonian cultural life: A recent review (Clement et al. 2015, Proc Royal Society) blew my mind! And the work over the past 20 years or so on the impact of African plant introductions, by slaves, to North and South America is really wonderful.

Jd: What critical changes would you like to see in modern Western medicine?

DM: Too big an issue for this format! Essentially, I’d like to see more recognition of the place of meaning, relationship, caring, curing, and healing alongside the manipulation of the biochemistry of life.

Jd: What do you see as your legacy?

DM: I hope that in the long future my online database is still viable and available to students and indigenous people everywhere.

Jd: While you are an inspiration in our field and a legend in your own right, you have also worked with and been friends with many legendary ethnobotanists. Do you have any stories or wisdom from working in that environment that you could share with our younger members?

DM: Tough. So many. So, I’ll only mention one: Nina Etkin was a magnificent anthropologist, a pioneering ethnopharmacologist, and a dear friend (and a DEB!) Her Nigerian fieldwork is among the most interesting I’ve ever read. Perhaps the most satisfying thing we did together was to arrange a really large double session on medicinal plant knowledge for a meeting of the American Anthropological Association in the year 2000. The neat thing about it was that half the speakers were senior scholars (including Brent Berlin and Ken Glander, who studied primate medicinal plant use,) and alternated them with grad students and post-docs, all young folks who were doing interesting work (Rick Stepp, past president of SEB was one, and Glenn Shepard was another). It was a terrific program. Although Nina and I never actually wrote a paper together, we did share drafts and discuss issues all the time. She died way too young. I miss her.

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