The Medicine Man - Paul Cox Is One of a Small Breed of Scientists Trying to Bring Native Healing Methods to the Modern World

By Conrow, Joan | National Wildlife, June-July 2001 | Go to article overview

The Medicine Man - Paul Cox Is One of a Small Breed of Scientists Trying to Bring Native Healing Methods to the Modern World


Conrow, Joan, National Wildlife


PAUL COX sat in a thatched hut on the Samoan island of Savaii and listened patiently as traditional healer Epenesa Mauigoa described dozens of different herbal remedies. His ears pricked when the elderly woman got to number 37 on her list: a treatment for hepatitis using the stem wood of the mamala tree. This was exactly what Cox, a researcher from Utah, had traveled thousands of miles to learn about: A plant used by indigenous people that might also hold promise for a new medicine in the West.

Cox is one of the country's preeminent ethnobotanists-scientists who often travel to remote parts of the globe and immerse themselves in local culture, and whose findings may add to the modern world's medicine cabinet. Since about half of the 25 top-selling prescription drugs in the United States derive from natural sources, ethnobotanists can be vital conduits of information. But playing such a role requires special skills. "You need an ear for language and you have to know your plants cold," says Cox, who is now director of the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hawaii. "You need to feel comfortable living in different settings and embracing different ways gracefully. Most important, you need the ability to establish rapport and trust."

In his nearly 30 years of work cataloging nature's pharmacopoeia in Samoa and elsewhere, Cox has mastered these skills so well that some Samoans call him Nafanua, in honor of a local deity.

He has also developed other abilities, including the political and fund-raising acumen to protect a Samoan rain forest from logging. But despite his efforts to collect and protect quickly disappearing native lore and habitats, Cox worries that he and his colleagues are not doing enough: "There are only about 25 of us out there actively researching and publishing in journals, and we're not keeping up."

Throughout his childhood in Salt Lake City, Cox was more interested in building greenhouses and growing flowers than playing sports. He credits his early interest in botany to his mother and father, who were a scientist and a park ranger, respectively.

His strong Mormon faith has been another abiding influence, and in 1973, Cox took time off from college and traveled to the South Pacific country of Western Samoa on a two-year mission. This was a pivotal event in his life, the scientist recalls, because his fascination with ethnobotany was first sparked while living with the Samoans and observing their many practical uses of plants. Cox also became close friends with village leaders who patiently taught him the formal version of the Samoan language, an arduous undertaking he equates to learning English by memorizing Othello.

Cox relished the simple Samoan lifestyle: living near friends in an open-sided, thatched-roof fale (hut) devoid of electricity and running water; eating fruit, pork, fish and starchy breadfruit; dressing in lava lava, the wraparound cloth worn as a skirt by men and women. He also felt deeply at home in Samoa because the people share his reverence for the natural world. "I've worked with indigenous people on all continents but Antarctica, and one thing they all agree on is the Earth is sacred. Western culture is the odd one out here. We're the only ones who look at it as a commodity."

When his mission ended, Cox vowed to return to Samoa and repay the kindness he had been shown. He fulfilled this promise in 1984, after finishing graduate school at Harvard, when a four-year National Science Foundation award allowed him to pursue any course of study he desired. Cox packed up his wife and four children and headed for Falealupo, where he began researching medicinal uses of native plants.

Falealupo is located at the northwestern tip of Savaii, the largest of ten volcanic islands that form the archipelago of Samoa. Like other Samoan rain forests, it is a tangle of woody vines rising from a carpet of bright green ferns and clusters of rare orchids. …

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