Natural products research in South Africa: 1890–2010

  • Siegfried E. Drewes
Keywords: History, Natural products, Researchers, Review, South Africa


Having spent some 50 years as an organic chemist with an interest in medicinal plant chemistry in South Africa it was relevant now to ask three questions, (1) when were natural products first utilised, (2) who were the people involved, and (3) what is the status quo? Based on older literature published in the South African Journal of Chemistry, information gleaned from attendance at innumerable chemistry conferences, and relevant literature in university archives, a great deal of information was gathered to answer the first two questions. For example, that the first veterinarian to treat cattle diseases caused by poisonous plants in the Eastern Cape was Dr Jotella Soga in the 1890s. Contributions from other prominent scientists such as Marais, Rindl, Rimington and Warren followed. From about 1940 to the 1990s, researchers concentrated mainly on the isolation of new compounds from local plants for which some indigenous knowledge was recorded. Foreign chemists also arrived and did a fair amount of ‘exploitation’ of natural products. Thus, the anti-cancer compound combretastatin was first isolated from the indigenous tree Combretum caffrum. Plant chemistry in South Africa has blossomed in the last decade, with many students from previously disadvantaged backgrounds, but with a keen interest in muti or medicinal chemistry, entering the field. Recent findings have rekindled the belief that a major development in natural products would at last emerge from Africa.


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