UCL School of Pharmacy


Obituary: Professor Otto Sticher

24 March 2022

Otto Sticher, Professor of Pharmacognosy and Pharmaceutical Biology Emeritus at the ETH Zürich (Switzerland), died unexpectedly and peacefully on March 11 at his home in Ebmatingen, Switzerland. He was 85.

In 2002, he received an honorary degree from the School of Pharmacy, University of London. He had been a long-standing collaborator of researchers at the School and had a global network of co-workers, who became his friends.

The field of pharmacy, and especially pharmaceutical biology, has lost a great colleague, mentor and most importantly long-standing friend. His enthusiasm of science has influenced all those who worked with him. We look back at all his contributions, and how he has impacted in so many ways on our lives and our ways of thinking. 

Professor Otto Sticher

A remarkable contributor to the study of natural products, Otto Sticher’s breadth of research covered the entirety of the field. He brought not only a deep knowledge and understanding of natural product isolation and identification, but also of their relevance in ethnomedical systems and as potential drug leads. He had been full Professor and Director of pharmacognosy (later pharmacy) at the Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the Department of Applied Biosciences at ETH Zurich since 1972. He retired on April 1st, 2002.

During his distinguished and productive scientific career spanning over 30 years, Otto Sticher authored and coauthored close to 400 scientific publications. His important contributions to the field have been recognised through numerous honours and awards. Among others, aside from the honorary doctorate from the School of Pharmacy, University of London, he received the Egon-Stahl-Award in Gold from the Society for Medicinal Plant and Natural Product Research (GA) in 2011. He was also an Honorary Member of several societies, including the GA, and a Honorary Member and Fellow of the American Society of Pharmacognosy (ASP). He served as Co-editor and Editorial Advisory Board Member of the journal Planta Medica, and on the Editorial Advisory Board of the Journal of Natural Products. He held appointments on pharmacopeial committees in Switzerland, Europe, and the United States. He has been a member of the Federal and European Pharmacopoeia Commission, and president of the Swiss Society of Pharmaceutical Sciences.

Douglas Kinghorn (Ohio, USA), who had also spent many years at the School of Pharmacy remembers him: “I was privileged to spend nearly six months on sabbatical as a Gastprofessor in Otto’s laboratory in Zurich in 1990, and this has very positively influenced me for the remainder of my working life. He was a model of academic excellence in our field of scientific inquiry. Otto very kindly served as an Editorial Board Member of the Journal of Natural Products from 1994-2003, and he attended many of the meetings of this group held in conjunction with the annual meetings of the American Society of Pharmacognosy. It was always refreshing and enlightening to talk to Otto and Miriam whenever they came to the United States.”

Michael Heinrich from the UCL School of Pharmacy highlighted that  “It has been such a wonderful experience to have had Otto’s support especially during my early years as a postdoctoral researcher. His openness to collaborating on ethnopharmacological projects and his enthusiasm for the research projects in Mexico has been a motivation for me. He was a man of few words, but also one who quietly pushed for overcoming academic boundaries. I will also remember him as a great ambassador for excellent and precise science.”

Jürg Gertsch from the University of Berne (Switzerland) reminds us: “At a time when pharmacy was moving increasingly in a direction of narrow, disciplinary specialisation he tried to bring together natural product chemists, botanists, pharmacologists, even ethnologists. Without his generosity, openness, and freedom for PhD students I could have not pursued an interdisciplinary career. I will never forget Otto during his visit to the upper Orinoco”.

Former Dean of the School of Pharmacy, Professor Sandy Florence, said: “Otto Sticher will be sadly missed for his life-long promotion of pharmacognosy and phytochemistry through his teaching and key work on antibacterial and cytotoxic agents from plant and marine sources. The personal loss is more acute because these essential elements of the pharmaceutical sciences are being neglected in some quarters, not least the UK.”

Otto Sticher was a scholar in a class of his own, and his scientific contributions were prodigious in quantity and quality. He was the main author of the later editions of one of the leading German textbooks “Pharmakognosie Phytopharmazie”, first published in 1963 by E. Steinegger und R. Hänsel, and of an influential review on natural product isolation published by the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2008.

The human and academic legacy of Otto Sticher will live on, and he will be missed in person but not in our intellectual work.

The thoughts of us all go to his beloved wife and family and we will remember his long lasting collaborations to pharmacy and other sciences.

Note: This obituary was written by Jürg Gertsch (Berne), and Michael Heinrich, with the input of many colleagues.