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Norman R. Farnsworth, grandaddy of medicinal plant research, passes at 81

Sadly, the Good Professor has left the stadium. In loving memory of Dr. Norman R. Farnsworth (1930 - 2011). Credit: Unidentified UIC graduate student.

Professor Norman Farnsworth, a true giant of pharmacognosy research, left us on Saturday night in Chicago. Farnsworth was Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Medicinal Chemistry and Pharmacognosy at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), the institution where he made his mark over the last 41 years studying the medicinal properties of agents from natural origins.

In 1982, he established the UIC Program for Collaborative Research in the Pharmaceutical Sciences, a model for today’s interdisciplinary research programs.  Farnsworth also led the UIC/NIH Center for Dietary Supplements Research has been the most productive and continuously-operating center of its type in the US.

A decorated Korean War veteran, Farnsworth received his B.S. in pharmacy from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy in 1953 and his PhD in pharmacognosy from the University of Pittsburgh. He remained at Pitt on faculty until joining UIC in 1970.

Farnsworth was truly a seminal figure in medicinal plant chemistry and biology, serving as a founder of the American Society of Pharmacognosy (ASP) and the Society for Economic Botany, both in 1959. He was still a graduate student when he served as the first vice-president and second president of the ASP. Farnsworth had also served for the last 35 years on the editorial board of the Journal of Natural Products, the premier journal of the discipline from the American Chemical Society. He later founded the German-based journal, Phytomedicine, with another outstanding scientist, his longtime University of Munich colleague, Dr Hildebert Wagner.

Word of his passing circulated among research collaborators over the weekend but I wanted to respect the institution’s press office until something official came out late yesterday afternoon. The good folks at the American Botanical Council led with this lovely retrospective – a sampling:

A larger-than-life figure, Norm Farnsworth was rarely seen without his trademark Marsh-Wheeling cigars in his mouth, even long after he was forced to give up smoking. As venues allowing smoking in public places diminished over the past two decades, Prof. Farnsworth would often be seen in a restaurant or public area with one of his cigars in his mouth, even after being admonished by waiters who told him that smoking was not permitted. Farnsworth would point out the obvious fact that he was not smoking, that the cigar was not lit, and would continue to keep the cigar in his mouth, seeming to relish the opportunity to keep walking up to the line, but not exceeding it.

He was highly-respected and admired in life and now remembered fondly by his former students, mentees, and friends. Often seen as brash and outspoken, frequently critical of other scientists and institutions which to him were guilty of producing less than acceptable work or policies, Norm Farnsworth pushed his students and all those around him to strive to the highest degree of academic and professional excellence. And underneath the brash veneer, was a man who was seen by his colleagues and students as extraordinarily generous with his time and his personal funds.

One would be hardpressed to identify a chemist or biologist working today in natural products whose life was not touched by Norm Farnsworth. He was involved in training over 100 PhD and 30 master’s students, directly mentoring about one-third of those. As a mid-career scientist venturing into natural products at the turn of the millennium, I had the distinct pleasure of working with Norm on two NCI projects and was honored to be a co-author with him on six publications.

Keeping with a tradition of recognizing the leaders of our field, the March 2006 issue of the Journal of Natural Products was published in honor of Professor Farnsworth. The introductory article by his former student and colleague of 56 years, Professor Harry Fong, concisely described the good professor:

Professor Farnsworth is the quintessential renaissance man, who along with such distinguished colleagues as Arthur E. Schwarting, Varro E. Tyler, and Jack L. Beal, among others, almost half a century ago, helped transform pharmacognosy from descriptive medical botany and mycology into the dynamic chemistry- and biology-based multidisciplinary science that it is today.

Farnsworth is also known widely for his humorous antics and cutting critiques of society and science. No topic was sacred. “To fully depict Farnsworth, one needs to write a book,” said Dr. Fong (e-mail to Mark Blumenthal, March 7, 2008). ‘Everyone who has come into contact with Norman Farnsworth has a ‘Farnsworth story’ or two to tell.”

The 2008 HerbalGram article from which that quote was derived also contained this beauty from former graduate student and new director of the FDA Division of Dietary Supplement Programs, Dan Fabricant:

Dr. Fabricant shared an anecdote as proof of Dr. Farnsworth’s all-encompassing knowledge in which he brought a date to Farnsworth’s 70th birthday party: ‘He said she wasn’t right for me,” said Dr. Fabricant.

‘A few weeks later we did indeed breakup, because, well, she wasn’t right for me.” Dr. Farnsworth tells this story to his students often to show that though they may not like his advice, he’d never steer them wrong.

Update 14 September: While reflecting today, I also had another memory of his equally-encompassing knowledge on plant chemistry. At an interinstitutional research group meeting, someone was presenting structures of compounds elucidated from a plant specimen. Farnsworth looked disapprovingly and said, “I think your plant material was covered with lichens. Only lichens can put a methyl group directly on a aromatic ring. Plants don’t.”

Farnsworth was everywhere, even where you least expected to find him. In assisting author Rebecca Skloot for her book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I scanned a much-needed article from the June 1976 issue of Ebony magazine at our city’s first African-American public library. On the page opposite the Henrietta Lacks article was Professor Farnsworth pictured and quoted in an article discussing an herb and plant-based diet for enhancing one’s love life. (“[T]here is no scientific evidence that any safe substance can stimulate sexual desire or improve performance in matters of love,” he said.)

The good thing – if there can be a good thing – is that many celebrations were had for Norm while he was alive, including a major event at UIC last March. The Fall 2010 issue of the UIC Pharmacist magazine was dedicated to him (with a lovely cover caricature) and the most recent issue showed him installing the first UIC Norman R. Farnsworth Endowed Professor in Pharmacognosy, Dr. Chun-Tao Che.

Too many of our senior colleagues pass on without adequate recognition. But Norm was celebrated frequently (and often whether you wanted to or not). He was a beautiful man and a true scholar who, while taking his own work very seriously, was someone that I never saw as proud as when he talked about his trainees. The entire field owes him a debt of gratitude, not just for the science but for the legacy of young (and not-so-young) scientists he leaves behind.

Norman Farnsworth is survived by his devoted wife Priscilla Marston Farnsworth, his brother, Bruce, and sister-in-law, Donna, of Massachusetts, a niece and nephew, and hundreds of graduate students, PhDs, post-doctoral fellows, and close colleagues who will always cherish his beloved memory.

A wake and viewing will be held at the Adams Winterfield & Sullivan Funeral Home, 4343 Main St., Downers Grove, IL on Tuesday, September 13 from 3-9pm. Memorial service for Professor Farnsworth will be held Wednesday, September 14 at 10am (9:30am viewing) at the North Shore Baptist Church, 5244 N. Lakewood Ave., Chicago, IL with funeral and burial in Lynn, Massachusetts on Friday, September 16 at 10am, at Cuffe-McGinn Funeral Home, 157 Maple St.; interment will follow at Pine Grove Cemetery.

More reading:

Norman R. Farnsworth, Renowned Medicinal Plant Researcher, Dies at 81 – American Botanical Council

Medicinal Plant Researcher Norman Farnsworth, 1930-2011 – UIC News Bureau

Norman Farnsworth: 1930-2011Chicago Tribune obituary by Graydon Meghan

Norman Farnsworth: A Force of Nature – Steve Myers – Natural Products Insider

Fong HHS (2006) Special issue in honor of Norman R. Farnsworth. Journal of Natural Products 69:311-313. (DOI:10.1021/np068000l)

3 Comments

  • Sep 13th 201122:09
    by Linda

    Reply

    Lovely tribute to an impressive man. We were saddened to hear the news this weekend. My most vivid memory of him was a conversation I had with him outside the Hamilton Grill in Lambertville– and, yes, he was waving the cigar..

  • Sep 16th 201106:09
    by Abdurrahman Topcu

    Reply

    I am not a scientist. But I met him in 1986 because of my wife who was making post-doctorate in his departmant.

    He suddenly asked me “You must be lucky with your lots of wifes in Turkey!”. I smiled and said, “No professor, unfortunately I am not, due to Ataturk’s civil laws before my born.”.

    I still remember his warm laugh loudly while he was getting smoky.
    I will miss that great man, wishing God’s mercy for him.

    Abdurrahman Topcu
    Istanbul

  • Sep 24th 201115:09
    by Gülaçtı Topçu

    Reply

    It is a big loss not only for his beloved wife Mrs. Priscilla Farnsworth and his family, but also for the Pharmacognosy World.
    During my post-doctoral studies in PCRPS, College of Pharmacy at UIC between 1986-88, I have witnessed that he was interested in all problems of his students and post-docs. I will always remember him with good memories, such as suddenly stopping by the lab to invite us for a lunch or dinner, and to cheer us with his unexpected jokes.
    We are indebted to him for his valuable contributions to the pharmacognosy, traditional and herbal medicine and drug discovery researches.

    We will miss Prof. Farnsworth as a great scientist and humanist man.

    Dr. Gülaçtı Topçu

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