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Bitter Roots

The Search for Healing Plants in Africa

For over a century, plant specialists worldwide have sought to transform healing plants in African countries into pharmaceuticals. And for equally as long, conflicts over these medicinal plants have endured, from stolen recipes and toxic tonics to unfulfilled promises of laboratory equipment and usurped personal patents. In Bitter Roots, Abena Dove Osseo-Asare draws on publicly available records and extensive interviews with scientists and healers in Ghana, Madagascar, and South Africa to interpret how African scientists and healers, rural communities, and drug companies—including Pfizer, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Unilever—have sought since the 1880s to develop drugs from Africa’s medicinal plants.
Osseo-Asare recalls the efforts to transform six plants into pharmaceuticals: rosy periwinkle, Asiatic pennywort, grains of paradise, Strophanthus, Cryptolepis, and Hoodia. Through the stories of each plant, she shows that herbal medicine and pharmaceutical chemistry have simultaneous and overlapping histories that cross geographic boundaries. At the same time, Osseo-Asare sheds new light on how various interests have tried to manage the rights to these healing plants and probes the challenges associated with assigning ownership to plants and their biochemical components.   
A fascinating examination of the history of medicine in colonial and postcolonial Africa, Bitter Roots will be indispensable for scholars of Africa; historians interested in medicine, biochemistry, and society; and policy makers concerned with drug access and patent rights.

288 pages | 37 halftones, 1 line drawing, 1 table | 6 x 9 | © 2013

Geography: Cultural and Historical Geography

History: African History

History of Science

Law and Legal Studies: General Legal Studies

Political Science: Public Policy


“In a fascinating look at modern and traditional medicine, the author tells the stories of efforts to commercialize pharmaceuticals from six African plants.”

Science News

"In a refreshing and innovative approach to bioprospecting, Bitter Roots helps to fill this gap by telling the stories of six African healing plants—rosy periwinkle, Asiatic pennywort, grains of paradise, Strophanthus, Cryptolepis, and Hoodia—all of which have been the subject of commercial investigation. By taking us on a historical journey from colonial exploration and exploitation to the contemporary controversies within which such plants are located, Osseo-Asare shows how multiple innovators have contributed toward the shaping of scientific knowledge. Through meticulous ethnographic research, she demonstrates how class distinctions allowed some parties to claim credit for drug discovery at the expense of others, highlighting the complexity of natural product research in African countries. Bitter Roots is not only engaging and provocative, but also provides new perspectives on old stories, in a region that has received little attention."

The American Historical Review

"In a book that reads as an ethnographic whodunit mystery, Osseo-Asare masterfully threads five stories that describe the complexities of determining ownership of medicinal plant knowledge when this knowledge spans over time, communities, and countries. A product of years of field research in Africa interviewing healers, scientists, and community members as well as reviewing archived material, the author, a remarkable academic historian, in the end makes it clear that the overwhelming amount of twists and turns in the historical path that a medicinal plant can take on its way to becoming a drug makes it impossible to assign rights of intellectual property. . . . A must read for scholars as well as the general public interested in herbal medicine, from academics who specialize in African studies or medical history to researchers in the area of pharmaceuticals as well as policymakers who deal with ownership rights and patents."

Manuel A. Aregullin, Cornell University | Quarterly Review of Biology

“By choosing to investigate colonial and postcolonial science through scientific work with plant medicines, Abena Dove Osseo-Asare deepens our understanding of the power relations not only between African and European or American scientists but also between healers and these indigenous and foreign scientists. Her detailed account of transnational scientific collaborations will be a lasting contribution to the field of science studies.”

Stacey Langwick, Cornell University

Bitter Roots is a book for our times: an age of bioprospecting and biopiracy, with hope for partnerships bringing bioprosperity. Abena Dove Osseo-Asare’s remarkable investigations clarify both the facts and the issues through the example of how the roots of several plants associated with Africa have been used, studied, and remade. She notes the slippery entanglements between traditional and scientific practices and, in the process, stalks not only knowledge but justice. Informative, bold, and sensitive.”

Harold J. Cook, author of Matters of Exchange

"Abena Dove Osseo-Asare’s Bitter Roots, an exquisitely written and quietly ironical account of the search for healing plants in colonial and post-colonial Africa, also charts the histories of plants as objects of scientific inquiry. Osseo-Asare crafts intricate narratives about six plants: rosy periwinkle, Asiatic pennywort, grains of paradise, Stropanthus, Cryptolepis and hoodia, which plant specialists sought to transform into pharmaceuticals from the 1880s onward."

Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences

Table of Contents

Introduction: From Plants to Pharmaceuticals

1. Take Madagascar Periwinkle for Leukemia and Pennywort for Leprosy
2. Take Grains of Paradise for Love
3. Take Arrow Poisons for the Heart
4. Take Bitter Roots for Malaria
5. Take Kalahari Hoodia for Hunger

Conclusion: Toward Bioprosperity
Persons Consulted


Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

African Studies Association: Melville J. Herskovits Award

Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association: Pacific Coast Branch Book Award

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