Jean Bassett Johnson was an American anthropologist and linguist who was born in Moscow, Idaho on September 7, 1915. He received his degree in anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley in 1937, where he became interested in the study of Mexican Indian languages. In 1937, Johnson traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico, where he spent time living among the Mazatec people and studying their language and culture.
It was during this time that Johnson had his famous encounter with Salvia divinorum, a psychoactive plant used by the Mazatec people in religious and shamanic practices. Johnson was the first Westerner to observe the use of Salvia divinorum, which the Mazatec referred to as “hierba Maria” or “leaf of Mary.” Johnson was fascinated by the plant and its effects, and he wrote about his observations in an article entitled “Some notes on the Mazatec,” which was published in the journal Botanical Museum Leaflets in 1939.
In his article, Johnson describes how the Mazatec people would chew the fresh leaves of the plant or drink an infusion made from the leaves to induce a state of altered consciousness. Johnson also noted that the Mazatec believed that the plant had the power to cure illnesses and to communicate with the spirit world. Johnson’s article helped to introduce Salvia divinorum to the Western world, and it sparked interest among ethnobotanists and others interested in psychoactive plants.
Unfortunately, Johnson’s discovery of Salvia divinorum did not gain much attention until after his death. Johnson joined the U.S. Navy Reserve in 1941 and was later sent to North Africa during World War II. Tragically, he died in a car accident in Tunisia on April 4, 1944, before he could fully explore the potential of Salvia divinorum and other psychoactive plants. It was not until the 1990s that Salvia divinorum gained wider recognition in the West, thanks in part to the work of ethnobotanists such as Terence McKenna and Daniel Siebert.
Despite his short life and untimely death, Johnson made significant contributions to the field of anthropology and the study of indigenous cultures. His work among the Mazatec people helped to expand our knowledge of their language, culture, and religious practices. Johnson’s observations of Salvia divinorum also helped to bring attention to the plant’s potential for use in medicine and spirituality.