Abstract A truncated history of the contribution of plants to medicine is given with reference to some of the less well known ancestors of the Harborne family. Six of the top 20 prescriptions dispensed in 1996 were natural products and the clinical use of drugs such as artemisinin, etoposide and taxol has once more focussed attention on plants as sources of novel drug entities. High through-put robotic screens have been developed by industry and it is possible to carry out 50,000 tests per day in the search for compounds which have specificity of action against a key enzyme or a subset of receptors. Bioassay-guided fractionation of plant extracts linked to chromatographic separation techniques leads to the isolation of biologically active molecules whose chemical structures can readily be determined by modern spectroscopic methods. The role of academics in the search for new drugs is discussed by reference to some of our research into natural products with activity on the central nervous system, on pain receptors, the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum, the wound healing properties of the sap of species of Croton (Dragon's blood), and a traditional Chinese medicine used to treat eczema. Expertise in phytochemistry has been essential for this research and the strong lead shown by Professor Jeffrey Harborne is gratefully acknowledged.