Obituary: Professor Norman Bisset

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Norman Grainger Bisset, pharmacognosist, born Glasgow 23 August 1925, Lecturer in Pharmacognosy Chelsea College (later King's College, London) Department of Pharmacy 1968- 73, Reader 1973-85, Professor of Pharmacognosy 1985-90, married Susanna Geerlings (died 1981; one son, one daughter, one adopted daughter), died Cheam 12 February 1993.

NORMAN BISSET was Emeritus Professor of Pharmacognosy in the Department of Pharmacy, King's College, London, and the world's leading authority on dart and arrow poisons.

Bisset joined the Department of Pharmacy, in what was then Chelsea College, in 1967 as a lecturer in pharmacognosy. Pharmacognosy is the study of medicinal products from the natural world: the transition from being a botanical descriptive discipline to the investigation of the chemistry of natural products owes much to the introduction of chromatographic and spectroscopic techniques pioneered by Joe Shellard and his junior colleague, David Phillipson, at Chelsea in the 1960s. The addition of Norman Bisset to the group added a depth and breadth of scholarship to pharmacognosy research there which further enhanced Chelsea's worldwide reputation as a leader in teaching and research.

This reputation ensured the survival of pharmacognosy as a distinct subject in the department at King's which contrasts with its status in many quarters of academic and professional pharmacy where it has been ignored or discarded. However, research chemists, biochemists and pharmacologists increasingly recognise its importance with the renewed emphasis on the value of natural sources in the search for new medicinal substances.

Bisset's interests and knowledge epitomised the interdisciplinary nature of the subject; this is exemplified by his affiliation to a range of learned societies which included the Linnaean Society, the Royal Anthropological Institute, the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Phytochemical Society. He published over 100 papers and articles. These were masterpieces of scholarship in their attention to detail and the accuracy of reference to original texts. In order to read original references about arrow poisons, Bisset learnt Chinese.

Bisset was especially interested in ethnopharmacology - the study of the use of natural substances in the medicine of ethnic groups. Many drugs of importance have been developed from other cultures' use of plants. The importance of salvaging the ethnopharmacology of groups in areas of rich biodiversity - such as the tropical rain forests - before the knowledge is lost for ever has spurred research into this area. Bisset was intimately involved with the launch of the Journal of Ethnopharmacology and was a leading member of both the International and European Societies of Ethnopharmacology.

Bisset graduated from Imperial College in the last years of the Second World War and spent some time in the Netherlands before going to work in the Far East at the botanical gardens in Bogor, Java, and then at the Forest Research Institute near Kuala Lumpur, where he took part in the phytochemical survey of Malaysia. He returned to Europe in 1962 and studied for a Ph D at the Centre National des Recherches Scientifiques at Gif-sur-Yvette near Paris, before joining the Pharmacy Department at Chelsea College in 1967.

His interest in arrow and dart poisons originated from study of the upas tree and Strychnos species in Asia, and he published on all aspects of such plants including history, taxonomy, chemistry and pharmacology. His interest grew until he became familiar not only with Asian plants but also those used in Africa and America. He supplied the world's leading experts in cardiac poisons with material and developed an interest in the cardenolides and alkaloids related to strychnine and the muscle relaxant alkaloids of curare, a paralysing poison taken from plant extracts and used by South American Indians for their arrows.

He built up a worldwide network of collaboration and his expertise was recognised in the award of a DS c (London) in 1985, invitations to speak at international scientific meetings and appointment as a consultant for the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation. This last work involved him in helping developing countries such as Rwanda, Togo and Niger develop their industrial production of medicinal plants.

The late 20th-century criteria of academic success - administrative skill, financial accretion or the fame of a being media personality - held little attraction for Norman Bisset, who was a fine example of a scholar interested in the pursuit of excellence in knowledge for its own sake. He was not only an expert in scientific matters related to his discipline but could speak several languages fluently and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of classical music. He was the type of person who made British scholarship - now increasingly alienated by the demands of market forces - the best in the world.

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