Dr. Michael J. Balick: Ancient Wisdom and Modern Medicine: Plants, Peoples, and Cultures in the Tropical Rainforest

Of the 350,000 species of higher plants known to exist on earth, about half are found in the tropical regions of the world.  Tropical forests are a rich reservoir of biological diversity, home to a vast range of flora and fauna.  This lecture discusses the study of plants used in traditional healing by indigenous cultures, the science of ethnomedicine.  Dr. Balick will discuss his work with Dr. Rosita Arvigo, a naprapathic physician and resident of Belize, Central America.  Starting in 1987, they have worked together on an ethnobotany project to inventory the ancient and modern uses of the plants found in Belize.  Over two dozen traditional healers and other local experts in forest utilization have participated in this effort to collect, identify, and evaluate thousands of plant specimens gathered from the tropical ecosystem. In another area of the world, The Pacific Islands known as Micronesia, Dr. Balick is working with an interdisciplinary team to inventory the vegetation of Pohnpei, Kosrae and Palau Islands and their surrounding atolls and document the traditional uses of plants. This project involves the participation of local ethnobotanists and elders knowledgeable in traditional ways. The team has shown how traditional plant knowledge in this region has “devolved”, or disappeared when its practitioners pass on without teaching the next generation, and how local initiatives are helping to resolve this crisis, as well as conserve important habitats for future generations. In seeking to show the utility of traditional medical knowledge and practices in the modern world, as well as preserve the biodiversity upon which it depends, scientists find themselves in a race against time, with both ecosystems being destroyed and the ancient wisdom about the plants and their environment rapidly being lost. He will introduce his new book, Rodale’s 21st Century Herbal: A Practical Guide for Healthy Living Using Nature’s Most Powerful Plants, a work that has been inspired by ancient texts known as “herbals,” a genre of books on the therapeutic use of plants published widely during the 15th-18th centuries.

For more than three decades, Dr. Michael Balick has studied the relationship between plants and people, the field known as ethnobotany, and floristics, the study of botanical diversity within a specific region.  Most of his research is in remote regions of the tropics, where he works with indigenous cultures to document plant diversity, knowledge of its traditional utilization and evaluation of the potential of botanical resources for broader application and use—while ensuring through legal mechanisms that benefits from such work are shared with local communities.  His career has focused on traditional uses of plants—as food, medicines, fiber, in personal care and for many other purposes—in areas that have included the Amazon, Central America, Asia and the Middle East and, most recently the tropical island nations of Micronesia in the Western Pacific Ocean. He is recognized internationally as an expert in the use of plants and plant compounds for promoting health and wellness.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014 at 7:30pm to 9:00pm

Paresky Center, Auditorium

Event Type



Biology, Environmental Studies, Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives, Hopkins Forest

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