So how did he get to where he is today? The Medicine Hunter said much of his career comes down to three things:
People, places and plants
“Over time, I met people who knew stuff. I read books as they came out. And eventually, thankfully, got some opportunities to travel. And as a result of doing good work in those travels, I became desirable to people in the industry, and that really set the trajectory of my professional path ever since.
“The other part of it is my deep and profound love for people. Because everywhere I go, I make friends. If I go to see you because you're a cocoa grower, I'm not just there because of their cocoa beans. I’ll wind up having a relationship with you, and that becomes a really rich dimension of the whole experience for me,” said Kilham.
“So if I go to Peru, if I go to Ivory Coast, if I go to Al-Tai in Russia, a big part of what I want to convey is, who are the people? Who are the people behind your rhodiola? Who are the people behind your ashwagandha? Who are the people behind your cat’s claw? So that became a big dimension of my work.”
Science gained, simplicity lost
Looking back at the evolution of the industry, Kilham said there was always something about natural products that captured people's attention, yet the industry was constantly criticized for lacking science.
“So between then and now, now you can't say, ‘Oh, the science isn't good on herbs.’ There are hundreds of thousands of studies on PubMed about herbs. Look around– this is a huge, huge industry now. And some of the simplicity of the early days, I kind of miss when it was really just sort of the core people who were out there organic gardening if they weren't selling your peanut butter. But at the same time, we had this idea that we could deliver natural medicines to a broad range of people. And that has happened.”
Kilham explained that throughout his travels in the past five decades, he’s collected thousands of images of medicinal plants, which he’ll be providing to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England – known as the largest botanical garden in the world. The 300-acre garden near London is home to the world's biggest collection of living plants and houses extensive botanic collections (conserved plants, living plants and documents).
“I have a couple hundred thousand images from my travels and I don't want them–whenever it is that I go–I don't want them to just kind of be lost in the sands of time. So I'm working on providing them. I've only provided them with about 1,800 images right now, but by the time I'm done, it'll probably be about 50, maybe even 60,000 different medicinal plants, the people who work with them, the places that they occur and methods of preparation. So it's very exciting."
To hear more on Kilham’s adventures, including a recent visit to the Sonoran Desert to sample psychedelic Bufo Toad venom, watch the full interview.