A “Botanist’s Botanist” : The Field Books of Timothy Plowman

The Field Museum Library has recently digitized and added to the Biodiversity Heritage Library Timothy Plowman’s entire field book collection, which spans his career from 1969, when he worked for the botanical museum at Harvard, through his years as a curator of botany at the Field Museum from 1976-1987. Timothy Plowman was an ethnobotanist and the world authority on the taxon Erythroxylum (coca). This genus of tropical trees and shrubs is best known for the species Erythroxylum coca L., a sacred leaf of the Andes, and also the source from which commercial cocaine is derived.

In his short lifetime—Plowman died at the age of 45—he collected materials in some of the most remote regions of the Andes and the rain forests of the Amazon, spending more than five years of his life in these harsh landscapes. As a result of Plowman’s work, the Field Museum is the most important repository in the world of research collections and literature pertaining to the classification of Erythroxylum. Plowman collected over 700 specimens of the genus from South America, and the Field Museum collection contains over 5,000 specimens collected worldwide as well as massive data resources. Plowman’s position as world authority on this genus also provided him a platform in which to speak on behalf of the indigenous peoples of the region and their traditional use of coca.

While Plowman’s Ph.D. research at Harvard University mainly concentrated on Erythroxylum, he also had a special interest in Brunfelsia (nightshade family), and a fascinating chapter in Plowman’s research of Brunfelsia is highlighted in his collecting notebook from 1968-1969 in Venezuela and Colombia. After reaching Santa Rosa on the Río Guamués in Colombia, Plowman was introduced to an old shaman who produced the species Brunfelsia grandiflora, which had been discovered and described by Plowman’s mentor, Richard Evan Schultes. The plant was well known for its hallucinogenic properties, and is further described below.

The shaman also brought from the forest a related plant that Plowman immediately identified as a new-to-science species, which he later named Brunfelsia chiricaspi, described on the following page. Wishing to confirm that this new plant also had similar properties as a drug, he asked the shaman to prepare it. At first the shaman refused his request, describing the plant as a “dangerous messenger of the forest,” but eventually relented. Plowman describes his experience from the drug, the effects of which he began to feel within ten minutes, within these pages of his field book.

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In the foreword to A revision of the South American species of Brunfelsia (Solanaceae), which was published posthumously as part of the Fieldiana Botany series, Plowman was described by colleagues as a man who “approached botanical research with the intensity and rigor of a scientist, the courage of his mentor, and the flair of a poet.” Making Plowman’s field books freely available online for the first time through the Biodiversity Heritage Library furthers the availability of the valuable scientific documentation about specimens, study sites, collecting details, and ecology, that were carried out by Timothy Plowman with such energy, enthusiasm, and grace.


Plowman, Timothy, Sandra Knapp, and J. R. Press. 1998. A revision of the South American species of Brunfelsia (Solanaceae). [Chicago, Ill.]: Field Museum of Natural History.

The BHL Field Notes Project is funded by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR).

Written by and

Gretchen Rings is Museum Librarian & Head of Library Collections for the Marie Louise Rosenthal Library of the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois. She lives one block from Olmsted’s Midway Plaisance.

Diana Duncan is the Technical Services Librarian at The Field Museum of Natural History Library.