LEVERETT, Mass. — He has walked across flaming coals on South Pacific islands, competed against Amazon chiefs in blowgun contests and had near-death experiences traveling in Third World countries.
Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter -- a sort of Indiana Jones of the plant world. Hired by companies that market herbal remedies for ailments ranging from the common cold to depression, he has spent a decade roaming remote areas of the globe in search of the next best botanical.
But he's also a businessman who talks about a social and environmental ethic. Along with promoting medicinal plants, Kilham is on a mission to preserve and protect natural environments while helping the indigenous people who live there.
"I'm not a person who goes and discovers a plant nobody has used before," said Kilham, who holds the title "resident explorer" at his alma mater, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where he is lectures in plant science. "I find traditional remedies and work to popularize them and establish trade with the countries that produce it."
Part of the sales from the supplements he helps produce are funneled back to the communities that grow and harvest the plants. "I want to put an end to the typical exploiter model where outsiders come and take the resources of an indigenous people and leave them without a penny in their pocket," he said.
Before he starts collecting plants or herbs, he tries to form a bond with the people who cultivate them. But the bonds come with risks -- such as the time he was talked into walking across a 45-foot-deep pit of hot stones.
"Fire walking is an act of faith," he said. "I don't know why it works. I don't know why people don't die doing it. But I found it very exhilarating."
He insists that the plants he brings to the marketplace are as safe and effective as synthetic products. But they're marketed as dietary supplements, not drugs. Bottles of the products carry notices saying their health benefit claims have not been verified by the Food and Drug Administration. It is the manufacturer's responsibility to make sure that they're safe.
In the mid-1990s, Kilham became involved in trading an herbal supplement called kava, which is grown in the South Pacific to treat anxiety. The FDA warned two years ago that kava carries a "potential risk" of causing severe liver damage.
Kilham criticizes American pharmaceutical companies for not paying more attention to herbal remedies because they're not a moneymaker for the industry.
Jeff Trewhitt, spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said drug companies do conduct research on plants, but acknowledged that it's not a priority in the industry. Research on other products holds more promise of being effective, he said.
Kilham has no classroom training for what he does -- he graduated in 1975 with a degree in mind-body disciplines, a major the university let him design himself. He began working for natural food stores, where he was first exposed to the benefits of herbal medicines. But his wanderlust and interest in botanical remedies soon took over.
A scientist involved in related work says Kilham could help legitimize the role of healing plants while making sure that indigenous cultures aren't robbed of their native crops.
"Americans increasingly want to know what benefit they're going to get from a supplement," said Wendy Applequist, who conducts international research on medicinal plants for the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis.
"It's not enough to just bring back a root from the Andes and say it's good for stamina. You need the science to back it up and the research to make sure it's sustainable," she said.