Neil Towers

Botany

Pioneering research in phytochemistry, world expert on herbal and medicinal plants.

Towers was born in Bombay, India but grew up in Burma, where he became interested in plants. He is recognized as one of the world’s most highly cited scientists. He published more than 425 papers and book chapters, starting with a 1953 paper in Nature. He travelled the world to collect plants. Towers was Head of the Department of Botany at UBC from 1964-71. His research included medicinal phytochemistry, ethnopharmacology, photobiology, chemical ecology relating to plants, fungi and insects, and biotechnology of plant cell and tissue cultures. Before his death he was working on antibiotic, antifungal and antiviral activities of plants of B.C., Kenya, Nepal and Peru used in traditional medicine. He was also working on photobiology, e.g., psoralens, light-activated plant chemicals with biological activity.

As a young scientist ...

I grew up in Myanmar (formerly Burma) when it was a British colony. My parents sent me to boarding schools around the country run by Christian brothers who sadly lacked an interest in the natural sciences, particularly natural history. Living and traveling as a schoolboy in perhaps one of the most beautiful tropical countries on this planet, I developed a craze for natural history. I collected snakes, beetles, butterflies, dissected animals for parasites and tried to identify plants from books. It was a happy boyhood. On reflection I think I was lucky not to have lived in our computer and television age. I did not see a television program until I was about twenty two! I spent all of my holiday time escaping prayers and wandering through the enchanting countryside exploring nature. I was spellbound by the travels, adventures and ideas of Darwin, Wallace, Bates and many other famous explorers. That is exactly what I wanted to be. World War II intervened.

I came to Canada on a scholarship for ex-naval officers at the end of the war. I had many adventures during the war, quite a number of which would have been called unforced errors of life were they to be compared to a game of tennis! Having escaped from the Japanese and winding up in England and then Canada, my life changed and I was suddenly plunged into the cloisters of academia. My sunny days of adventure were over - perhaps forever. Read more of this autobiography at The Botanical Electronic News.

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