Memory Elvin-Lewis

Botany

Ethnobotanist and Infectious Disease Microbiologist: Dr. Elvin-Lewis is an expert on evaluating traditional medicines and their use.

"Remember to have patience for technology to catch up to you and your discovery."

Holding his half-full gourd of “chicha,” Walter Lewis smiles, wishing he didn’t have to drink another drop. It tastes so sour, like a combination of yogurt, warm beer and mashed potatoes. But the headman — the apu of the Achuar Jivura village in the Peruvian Amazon jungle — is looking him right in the eye. To refuse this friendship ceremony drink would be an insult to his hosts.

Lewis takes another look at the yellowish liquid in his gourd. He knows that Achuar women make chicha by chewing a kind of cassava root and spitting it into a huge bowl. Then they let it stand for a while to ferment. The air in the open hut is wet and hot. Lewis feels his shirt stick to the sweat on his back as he turns to glance at his wife, Memory, sitting among the women just outside the men’s circle. A smouldering cooking fire gives everything the smell of smoked fish. The forest outside is alive with shrieking jungle birds while inside the hut, pet parrots, monkeys and dogs squawk and bark. A crowd of gawking, naked children surrounds the Lewises. “We are the zoo,” thinks Lewis as he takes a final sip of the brew like a good ethnobotanist.

The Lewises have travelled to the Peruvian jungle in search of plants that might yield new drugs. They are ethnobotanists and they specialize in communicating with native peoples around the world to learn about their traditional medicines. Mariano, the headman, is telling Walter about the healing powers of a certain plant whose roots are used to help women through the final stages of childbirth.

While Walter is talking to Mariano, Memory notices a big grin on the face of an old woman in the back row. In Achuar culture, women do not sit with the men but have their own special area within the hut. Memory quietly goes to talk to the old woman, who turns out to be Mariano’s auntie. She takes Memory outside to show her the plant Mariano is talking about, all the while telling her how men don’t know much about this medicine, since it’s used strictly by women. When Memory sees the plant, she learns that it’s not the root the Achuar use but the leaf. On closer inspection later, Walter discovers that it’s not the leaf that has the medicinal quality but an ergot-like fungus growing on the topmost leaves of the plant.

The Lewises credit many of their discoveries to the way they work as a team. If Walter had been in the jungle on his own, perhaps he never would have discovered this medicine. As a man he would probably not have talked to the women of the tribe, and he would have embarked on a futile search for the active ingredient in the roots of the plant.

As a young scientist ...

When Memory was a girl in Vancouver, her father, a physician, took her with him on his house calls. As a teenager she helped in his office. Anything scientific fascinated her and her father encouraged her by helping her understand what he did. She was unsatisfied with the science education she was getting at the small private school she attended and she insisted on going to public school, where she believed she would get a better education. She found her science teachers to be excellent and she always topped the class in science. As a teenager Memory volunteered in the St. John Ambulance Brigade and became a sergeant.

When she took her first microbiology course at the University of British Columbia, she remembers thinking, “This is it!”

In 1969 Memory and her co-workers recorded a case of a teenage St. Louis boy dying of strange natural causes, complications from a chlamydia infection that should not have been fatal. Nobody could understand the boy’s case history or figure out why he died, so blood specimens were put away and frozen. Twenty years later, when acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) was characterized, Memory recognized the symptoms and had the boy’s frozen blood analyzed. The case is now recognized as the first recorded case of AIDS in the United States.

The Science