NORMAN R. FARNSWORTH 1930-2011

Norman with flowers Cimicifuga Echinacea Hypericum

Professor Norman R. Farnsworth, renowned pharmacognosist, internationally respected medicinal plant researcher and founder of the NAPRALERT database, died in Chicago on September 10 at the age of 81.

Norman Robert Farnsworth was born on March 23, 1930 to Lee and Zelma Furbush Farnsworth of Lynn, Massachusetts, where he grew up with older sisters Nancy Lee and Bethany and younger brother Bruce. It was in Lynn where he met and married his beloved wife of 58 years, Priscilla Marston Farnsworth, and here, at an early age, where he developed his legendary passion for local varieties of shellfish, especially Ipswich clams and Maine lobster.

He was a veteran of the Korean Conflict, where he served in the U. S. Army’s Third Infantry Division, Seventh Regimental Combat Team. During his short 9-month tenure (November 1950- July 1951) in Korea he witnessed intense combat. He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with a “V” device, the United States Military’s fourth-highest award for valor, along with an oak leaf cluster, representing an additional award of the Bronze Star medal. He also received the Combat Medical Badge and the Korean Service Medal with three Service Stars, to denote participation in three campaigns during the conflict- the Chinese Communist Forces Intervention (November 3, 1950 to January 24, 1951), First United Nations Counteroffensive (January 25 to April 21, 1951) and Chinese Communist Forces Spring Offensive (April 22 to July 8, 1951).

Returning from Korea, he received both baccalaureate and master’s degrees under the tutelage of Professor Heber Youngken at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy, and a doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) in 1959. At Pitt, he helped institute the Pharmacognosy Ph.D. program, and served as its first chair. In 1970, he left Pitt to become head of the Department of Pharmacognosy and Pharmacology in the College of Pharmacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).

Over the course of his academic career, Professor Farnsworth received three Doctoris Honoris Causa (honorary Doctorates), from the University of Paris V (Rene Descartes), Upsalla University, Sweden, and the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Allied Sciences. Honorary professorships were awarded him from the University of Trujillo, Peru, the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, Peking Union Medical College, and the Institute for Medicinal Plant Development in Beijing, China.

Instrumental in shaping the modern field of pharmacognosy, he was a founding member of the American Society of Pharmacognosy, and founding director of the Program for Collaborative Research in the Pharmaceutical Sciences at UIC —a multidisciplinary program that brought together, for the first time, scientists in numerous fields of medicinal plant research to collaborate on both basic and clinical research on natural products.

He established the Norman R. Farnsworth endowed Professorship in Pharmacognosy at UIC, where over the course of his tenure he mentored more than 100 doctorate and 30 graduate students, as well as numerous post-doctoral fellows.

In 1974, Professor Farnsworth was a member of the first delegation of scientists from the United States to travel to the People’s Republic of China, where he observed the practice of traditional Chinese herbal medicine. The American Herbal Pharmacology Delegation’s excursion resulted in the publication of Herbal Pharmacology in the People’s Republic of China by the National Academy of Sciences. He was a member of the World Health Organization (WHO) Expert Advisory Panel on Traditional Medicine, and has acted as Director of the WHO Collaborating Center for Traditional Medicine Programme at UIC’s College of Pharmacy since 1981.

Norman with cigar

From 1996-1997, he was appointed by President Bill Clinton as a member of the Presidential Commission on Dietary Supplement Labels, established by Congress as part of the provisions of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), charged with developing recommendations for the review of the quality, safety, benefits, and appropriate labeling of dietary supplements.

He was a member on other national panels, including the National Research Council’s (NRC) Committee on Comparative Toxicity of Naturally Occurring Carcinogens (1993-1995), and the NRC Committee on the Framework for Evaluating the Safety of Dietary Supplements (2001-2004). In addition to his numerous professional and academic awards, he received honorific immortality by having a new orchid species, Cycnoches farnsworthianum, being named in his honor. To learn more about this interesting plant, please visit our Farnsworth Orchid page.

In 1975, back in the “dawn of the computer age”, Professor Farnsworth created NAPRALERT, the world's first computerized database on the ethnobotany, chemistry, pharmacology, toxicology, and clinical trials of natural products. NAPRALERT evolved from several generations of natural product bibliographic references, including the Lynn Index, a seven-volume bibliography of phytochemistry developed by Professor Eldin V. Lynn at MCP, followed by Pharmacognosy Titles, a nine-volume periodical reference (1966-1974) documenting literature sources for global natural product investigations. The NAPRALERT database represents one of Professor Farnsworth’s most important scientific contributions, and his enthusiasm for- and dedication to- the database remained steadfast throughout his career. We are honored to carry on his life’s work and to expand upon his legacy.

A larger-than-life figure, Prof. Farnsworth was rarely seen without his trademark Marsh Wheeling “stogie” cigars. Often seen as brash and outspoken, Professor Farnsworth pushed all those around him to strive to the highest degree of academic and professional excellence, yet he almost never failed to disarm and enlighten students, colleagues (and strangers!) with his whimsical, rare and unapologetically earthy sense of humor.

Those of us that had the pleasure to know and work with him were constantly rewarded with pithy sayings, profound philosophical insights and glimpses of the extraordinarily kind and generous human being lurking under that crusty exterior.

Highly respected and admired in life, he is now remembered fondly by his former students, protégés, family and friends.