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Amazon mystery

A medicine man understood the secrets of this plant long before we did. How?

``This plant, ayoowiri, cures many things," said the medicine man DaBuWan in the Amazon rain forest as he held up a beautiful plant with red and yellow flowers.

``The juice from the leaves cures fever, the juice from the flower cures sores, and the seeds cure bad cough, breathing difficulty, and chest pain."

DaBuWan, his face and upper body painted with the sacred white clay they call ``pemba dotee," and wearing a loincloth, carefully examined the roots of the plant like any other scientist. ``This part can be very dangerous," he warned, pointing to the brown roots, which he said could cause death if eaten.

``It is a powerful woman's medicine," the descendant of West African slaves added with a very serious look on his face. ``A woman can use it to end a pregnancy."

``Abortion?" I asked.

``Yes," he said with hand gestures around the abdomen, ``abortions."

DaBuWan was then arguably one of the greatest medicine men in the Amazon rain forest, if not the world, and I spent seven years in the 1970s and 1980s storing and cataloguing some of the plants he identified. I was in awe of his knowledge.

I was reminded of him recently when I came across several molecular biology studies of Caesalpinia pulcherrima -- the plant I had identified back then as ayoowiri. This plant, the new studies note, contains compounds that have powerful antiviral benefits, especially effective against human herpes viruses and adenoviruses, which cause the common cold. Caesalpinia pulcherrima prevents these viruses from replicating. Other recent studies demonstrate that extracts from the flower, stem, leaf, fruit, root, and seed of Caesalpinia pulcherrima are also effective against wheezing, bronchitis, malarial infection, tuberculosis, other bacteria, fungi, and some parasites. Earlier research had found that the active ingredients of the same plant -- named for the Italian botanist Andrea Cesalpino and the Latin ``very beautiful" -- induce vomiting, and 4 grams can induce abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy.

So, Western medicine, with its expensive machinery and sophisticated scientists, has finally figured out what DaBuWan and his peers knew long ago. But how did they know it?

As a Harvard professor who practices evidence-based medical research, it is a question I have been trying to answer since I first met DaBuWan.

``This plant, Ayoowiri, has been used by the women of our village for abortions since the time of Bakarah," the white man, DaBuWan had told me.

DaBuWan, a native of Suriname, went on to say that he had learned about this plant even as a child from the older medicine men and Obeah (spiritual-medicine) women, and that it was also well known to the Amer-Indians living in the deep rain forest. I later met with a prominent Obeah woman in the village who confirmed that she had used Ayoowiri rarely with some of the young women in the village who might not have survived childbirth.

She, too, recounted how the people of her grandmother's time could use this plant to abort the pregnancies that were forced on them by their slave owners and to commit suicide rather than live in slavery. She shyly asked whether the women of my homeland knew of Ayoowiri. She said that when boiled, the roots of this plant release a juice that can stop an early pregnancy, while the leaves and flowers release medicinal substances that can cure women and men of the worst illnesses.

Plants evolve their curative properties to protect themselves against bacteria and viruses similar to the ones that affect humans, but the indigenous people couldn't possibly know that -- or could they? Did the African-descended inhabitants of the Suriname rain forest, who have lived there from the 18th century, learn of the medicinal properties of Caesalpinia pulcherrima from the indigenous Amer-Indians? Or, was this knowledge passed down by their African ancestors?

Ayoowiri would grab my attention again some years later while I was studying at the Karolinska Nobel Institute in Stockholm, where I visited the Royal Academy Library for my research work. While there, I came across a most fascinating book on Suriname, titled Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, written by the Swiss scientist and naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian and published in Amsterdam in 1719. (The librarian chuckled when I checked this book out, and when I inquired as to why, she told me that the book had not been checked out since the 1800s, by the king of Sweden.)

Merian, an extraordinary woman for her time, traveled by ship from Portugal to Suriname to conduct scientific field studies on the insects and flowers of Suriname. In one of her field study entries on Jan. 22, 1700, she departed from her traditional scientific description of a plant she had observed to engage in what might be described as a moment of sisterhood with the women of color. When she inquired of these enslaved women about their use of a plant with beautiful red and yellow flowers, which she called flos pavonis, ``flower of Pavon," they surprised her with their description of the uses of this plant.

Merian wrote, ``This plant Flos pavonis has parts which are used by the slave women to induce abortion. The Indian slave women are very badly treated by their white enslavers and do not wish to bear children who must live under equally horrible conditions. The black slave women, imported mainly from Guinea and Angola, also try to avoid pregnancy with their white enslavers and actually seldom beget children. They often use the root of this plant to commit suicide in the hope of returning to their native land through reincarnation, so that they may live in freedom with their relatives and loved ones in Africa while their bodies die here in slavery, as they have told me themselves."

Could it be that these Africans of South America, who, as Merian had observed in 1700, came mainly from Guinea (West Africa) and Angola, brought some knowledge of the medicinal properties of Caesalpinia pulcherrima to the Americas with them?

In 1980 I traveled to the West African nation of Togo, where I found Caesalpinia pulcherrima growing abundantly. When I took specimens of the plant to medicine men at the Africaine pharmacie, an area just outside the capital, Lome, they told me that this plant had curative powers for severe illnesses that included fevers and that the seeds and roots of the plant could be used to induce abortion. (The plant also grows in such disparate places as India, Barbados, and China. It is widely used today in traditional Chinese and Indian medicine.)

Diseases caused by adenoviruses, herpes viruses, malaria, tuberculosis, and bacteria have been around since the time of Merian, and certainly during the life of the late medicine man DaBuWan. All those years ago, the people of the rain forest screened thousands of plants in the South American jungles. They identified the medicinal properties of Caesalpinia pulcherrima and applied it in their version of clinical trials and treatment. Through their trial and error studies, and some might say over generations of empirical observations, they knew long before we discovered molecular biology that this plant could be used as a medicine.

Where and how they first discovered these properties we will probably never know. But the scientific process is clearly alive and well in the Amazonian rain forest, and maybe all of the answers are there, waiting for us to find.

Dr. S. Allen Counter is a professor of neurology and neurophysiology at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.