Genesis of a Medicine Man

Whatever path you might imagine as the starting point for a career working for pharmaceutical companies, trekking the world to find plants with medicinal potential, odds are you’ve guessed wrong.

Unless of course, your path includes graduation from high school too young to take a job, military service, 34 years with a world-leading business machine company, helping develop the world’s first bar code—and then retiring.

But that’s the path Darryl Searcy followed. And, at 76, he’s been on three major collecting trips in the past year—trekking into the Amazon basin, tenting on cactus flats and riding an elephant through the backcountry of India.

His love of plants started with a camera. His dad gave him one when he was eight, and he discovered that he didn’t care much for shooting pictures of people or places, only of plants. “My dad said ‘go for it, ’” Searcy recalls, and he did.

Though Searcy was born in Conecuh County, he spent most of his early years in Missouri, before a fluke brought him back to high school in Alabama, just in time for a career day for W.S. Neal’s 1953 seniors. The plant-loving Searcy was recruited by IBM, but—still just 17—not old enough to accept a job.

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He put the intervening months toward studies at Texas Southern University, but, as soon as he turned 18, he called IBM, wondering whether they would still want him.

The answer was yes. They wanted him that day, and for the rest of his working life, giving him time for service in the U.S. Marines, for completing his education, including two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in microbiology and systematic botany from the University of Missouri, Kansas City.

So what did a world-renowned business machine company want with 34 years of service from a botanist? And how did that work end up in a grocery store?

When computers were young, Searcy’s credentials were green, and inventory and logistics were pencil-and-paper exercises, a young salesman at IBM had an idea. His name was Ross Perot, and the idea was a bull’s-eye shape with machine-readable numbers inside. A bull’s-eye tag could be fixed on a product to help the business count its products and keep track of them during shipping. And who could use that more than the world’s nurserymen, IBM reasoned.

So Searcy was dispatched to remote locations to help plant businesses identify their stock, affix bull’s-eye tags and follow the plants en route to their new homes.
Despite Searcy’s work and Perot’s salesmanship, the system just didn’t catch on with nurseries.

But a key Southern grocery chain was intrigued by the possibility. If only that little bull’s eye could be straightened out so it could hold more numbers, it would be great for tracking groceries, the company said. IBM created the modern bar code for Winn-Dixie, and now it’s so ubiquitous that many a Gen Xer can’t believe there was ever life before bar codes.

Searcy completed his career at IBM—34 years’ worth—and retired to Brewton, where his dad owned some streamside property on Big Escambia Creek.

Brewton quickly became home. He gave his botanical expertise to project after project locally—first helping create the nature trails at Burnt Corn Creek park, then at the Turtle Point Environmental Science Center in Escambia County, then working with landscaping at the likes of T.R. Miller Mill Co. and Georgia-Pacific and even Burger King. 

Searcy helped plan and build nature treks like this one at Murder Creek Swamp.

And then came a phone call from his past.

As a graduate student years earlier he had been involved in plant finding for business purposes. And this was a repeat call. Could he head up an expedition to find plant specimens for a major pharmaceutical house? Searcy won’t say what company—that’s proprietary, along with the list of plants he was asked to gather.

But he welcomed the chance.

He helped select and then led a team of botany and biology graduate students to places that many a younger fellow might avoid.

Last year, he was off to Peru and Ecuador, followed by a trek to the Isola District of India. In India, he rode through the jungle on elephant back, because the creatures most likely to be harmful aren’t keen to attack an elephant. His red turban with white peacock feather told all observers that he was in charge.

Earlier this year, he traveled across the varied terrain of Bolivia—from Lake Titicaca to the salt flats. Not only did his team search for plants for pharmaceutical houses and look for differences caused by changing conditions, but they also addressed questions like the effect of new vegetation springing up in areas once covered by glaciers.

And the team is never limited by what’s on a prepared list. Searcy may talk with the shaman in a remote village to find out what plants they use to help a woman who’s pregnant, what they do for snakebite victims, how they handle pain. These shamans are the best authorities on “sympathetic medicines, ” Searcy says, because they have to treat patients with what’s on hand, days away from modern medicine.

Though Searcy is low-key in his story telling, his journal—the one for friends and family, not the scientific one for his employers—tells of finding bubbling springs like Yellowstone, of salt flats so permanent they don’t melt into the river beneath them, of swimming with pink dolphins, of macaws so close you have to avoid their pinching bills, and of removing a young black anaconda from a team member after it had sunk in its teeth in preparation for a big squeeze.

And then back to Brewton, to D. W. McMillan Memorial Hospital, where he trades his plant expertise for the use of a small lab. He creates gardens for the hospital—gardens with everything from a golden raintree (planted in honor of his late wife) to thornless roses (over the arbor in the new mother’s garden) to a gold bark willow, and every plant anyone has ever donated. His gardens have converted junk storage and asphalt into courtyards, transformed blind corners throughout the hospital into nooks brimming with foliage and flowers.

He’s quick to say he didn’t do the garden construction himself. Hospital employee Chris New helped with the backbreaking labor. But the multiple gardens earned Searcy honors as one of this year’s Healthcare Heroes for the state.

And who knows, his pharmaceutical research could make him a healthcare hero for the world. He’s off to Malaysia on another trek this August.

Nedra Bloom is copy editor for Business Alabama.

By Nedra Bloom

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