Guyana-born Chemist and Ethno-botanist – Conrad Gorinsky – Dead at 83

An Ethno-botanist Who Wanted to Save the Amazon But was Accused of Biopiracy

Dr. Conrad Gorinsky

Obituary | The Times

Conrad Gorinsky was born in Parubaru, near the Kuyuwini river, in British Guiana on March 7, 1936. He died of pneumonia after being treated for nasal cancer on August 18, 2019 at age 83 

As a young woman lay dying after being bitten by a venomous sea snake in Papua New Guinea, Conrad Gorinsky bemused his fellow explorers by smearing her swollen leg with mashed mango.

A world authority on the medicinal properties of tropical plants, whose reputation was later tarnished by allegations of “biopiracy”, Gorinsky was familiar with the ancient treatment for snake bites used by the indigenous people. The girl made a full recovery.           

A veteran of many such expeditions, Gorinsky would distract his fellow explorers from eerie noises in the jungle as he told stories around a campfire about growing up with the Wapishana tribe in the rainforest of British Guiana (now Guyana), South America. He learnt to fish by watching them chew the leaf of the barbasco bush, roll it into a ball and throw it in the river. After the fish had nibbled the ball, their nervous systems would be attacked and they would jump obligingly on to the riverbank.

Infusions from the bark of the greenheart tree would treat fevers. The grated nut of the tree was chewed by the women if they needed a contraceptive. Years later, as an academic at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, Gorinsky set about isolating the chemical compounds of these jungle remedies.

In the 1980s he patented cunaniol from the barbasco bush as a stimulant to the nervous system that could unblock arteries and temporarily stop the human heart without damaging it. He also patented the compound from the greenheart tree, which he called rupununine, as an antipyretic to treat diseases such as malaria and cancer. The patents were registered in the US and Britain. Gorinsky talked to pharmaceutical companies and venture capitalists with a view to marketing them.

A proto-environmentalist whose father was Polish and mother an Amerindian, Gorinsky had a vision of creating a “pharmacopoeia” of jungle compounds. “The forests are like a big library and the people of the forest are librarians,” he liked to say. However, his vision of saving the Amazon turned into a nightmare when Wapishana tribespeople accused him of stealing the secrets of the jungle.

Gorinsky had become internationally respected in the Seventies as a co-founder of the charity Survival International, which campaigns for the land rights of indigenous peoples in the Amazon. A fellow of Green College, Oxford [now Green Templeton College], Gorinsky had talked about creating a university of ethnobiology in Brazil at which the shamans of the Amazon would be “barefoot professors”. He was convinced that there were thousands of undiscovered cures still to be found.

Some thought his ideas overblown, others took him seriously. He was once invited to the House of Commons science select committee to explain his “debt for nature” plan to sell jungle medicines as a way of paying off the millions that South American nations owed western banks.

For all his good intentions, his enterprise ended in disaster. He claimed that he wanted to protect the intellectual property rights of the tribespeople who had developed the cures over generations. However, in 1990 members of the Wapishana tribe demanded that he revoke the patents. Some tribespeople claimed that he would be avenged by the spirits whose wrath Gorinsky had incurred by stealing their secrets. Gorinsky, who was working in Venezuela at the time, found himself condemned as a “colonial scientist” and deported.

He recalled: “I wanted to help them, the indigenous tribes, sell their knowledge to the outside world without being exploited by governments and western multinationals. To do that I needed to establish legal title to their genetic heritage. If someone else established patents, I wouldn’t be able to research those genes . . . The idea was to share the proceeds with the tribes.”

Tall with a jaunty gap-toothed grin, Gorinsky could morph from seriousness to silliness in an instant. By his own admission, he was naive and lacking in business acumen. He claimed to have been exploited by his business partners and said that rival pharmaceutical companies and scientists turned the Wapishana tribe against him.

The Convention on Biodiversity, signed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, effectively nationalised plant resources and outlawed the patenting of organic compounds by individuals.Gorinsky could have retained his American patents because the US did not recognise the convention, but he allowed them to lapse, claiming to the end that he would never have betrayed the indigenous communities whose heritage he shared.

Conrad Gorinsky was born in Parubaru, near the Kuyuwini river, in British Guiana in 1936. His father, Caesar Gorinsky, had emigrated to Brazil from Poland to prospect for gold. He did not find any, but he did find a wife, Nellie Melville, who was Amerindian. The couple settled at a ranch in Good Hope in the north, which Caesar had won at cards. It was 300 miles from the capital, Georgetown, which in those days could be reached only by river: A journey that could take months.

Conrad was educated at a Jesuit school in Georgetown. At the age of 17 he sailed for Britain, attended night school and enrolled at Birkbeck College, University of London to study botany and chemistry. While there he met Beatrice Woolhouse, who was studying crystallography. They married in 1967. She became a lecturer. He is survived by their two sons and a daughter: Julian, who leads a private life; Roland, a solicitor, and Christina, who is an English teacher.

Gorinsky went on to do a PhD at St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical College in London and became a lecturer, building his own ethnobotanical laboratory. He joined many expeditions to tropical rainforests. His knowledge of tribal customs and patois proved invaluable. In return, he gained a passage to collect plants, never removing specimens without the permission of a local chief.

His first expedition, led by Robin Hanbury-Tenison, was to navigate the Orinoco river by hovercraft in 1968. He also made several trips with John Blashford-Snell, a British army officer and explorer. One of their missions was to deliver a grand piano to the Wai-wai tribe in a remote village in Guyana at the behest of a local chief who thought the instrument might persuade young members of the tribe not to leave.

Their party, which included a choirmaster and piano tuner, landed at the nearest airstrip, where they were promised that 100 sturdy Wai-wai would be on hand to lug the piano to its final destination ten miles away. Only six were there. They slowly pushed the piano through the jungle on a wooden sledge. Ever resourceful, Gorinsky found a canoe that could take the weight of the piano and took it to the village through rapids. When they arrived, they asked about their supposed 100 helping hands. The chief said:“We did not think you would make it.” The piano is still being played, but Gorinsky often received letters requesting a tuner to be sent deep into the jungle.

A keen cook and gardener, Gorinsky drove a battered Austin 1300; he had spent his life savings on his research. He never gave up when his latest venture collapsed. He would soon embark on a new one, even though he knew that his poor administration skills would usually spell doom. “I’m always building a new Titanic from the wreckage of the last,” was one of his favourite sayings. His family will create a website for his huge database of medicinal plants.

Ethnobiology is now taught at many universities, which is partly down to Gorinsky and his passion for the Amazon. As swathes of the rainforest burn this week, some would argue that such activism was never more needed.

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  • Clyde Duncan  On 09/01/2019 at 12:48 am

    Art Burr wrote:

    Conrad went to Saint Stanislaus College as I did, but he was six years older than me so we didn’t have much contact. Peter, his brother I are similar in age and I knew him very well.

    Conrad grew up at Good Hope ranch which is just across the Ireng River from Brazil. Most of the folk in that area grew up speaking Portuguese and English in addition to local dialects like Wapishana and Macushi. I suspect that’s where the patois comes from.

  • Clyde Duncan  On 09/01/2019 at 12:01 pm

    We should have a Wall of Fame to honour these Giants of Guyana

    Most of us only hear about them after reading their Obituary

  • MARILYN STEPHANIE BROWNE  On 09/10/2019 at 3:18 pm

    Guyana has produced some of the most brilliant minds, some of which are scattered all across the world. Many of them have already left us and sadly, the generations after us may never know they existed. If you don’t know where you come from, you’ll never know where you’re going.

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