Who Discovered Kratom?

Pieter Willem Korthals: The Scientist Behind the Discovery of Kratom

Pieter Willem Korthals, a Dutch botanist of the 19th century, holds a special place in the history of science for his significant contribution to the discovery and documentation of Mitragyna speciosa, commonly known as kratom. Korthals' achievements extend beyond his exploration of this botanical specimen, as he played a pivotal role in advancing our understanding of various plant species during his career. This article delves into the life and accomplishments of Pieter Willem Korthals and sheds light on how he stumbled upon kratom during his botanical endeavors.

Early Life and Education

Pieter Willem Korthals was born on November 12, 1807, in Amsterdam, Netherlands. He displayed a keen interest in the natural world from an early age, and this passion led him to pursue studies in botany and natural sciences. Korthals' academic journey took him to some of Europe's renowned institutions, where he honed his skills and developed a deep appreciation for the diversity of plant life.

Botanical Exploration in Southeast Asia

Korthals' botanical career took a significant turn when he was appointed as the assistant curator at the Leiden Botanical Garden in the Netherlands. In 1831, at the age of 24, he embarked on an expedition to the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia) to study and collect various plant species. His mission was to document the rich flora of this region and contribute to the knowledge of plants from Southeast Asia.

During his time in Southeast Asia, Korthals conducted extensive fieldwork, making significant contributions to the field of botany. He documented and described numerous plant species, including palm trees, orchids, and ferns. His meticulous observations and detailed botanical drawings earned him recognition in the scientific community, and his collections were highly valued by European botanical institutions.

Discovery of Kratom (Mitragyna Speciosa)

It was during his botanical exploration in Southeast Asia that Pieter Willem Korthals made a remarkable discovery that would leave an enduring mark on the field of ethnobotany. In 1831, while working in Thailand (then known as Siam), he came across a tree with distinctive leaves and observed how the local inhabitants used them in their traditional practices.

Korthals' detailed notes reveal that he encountered the plant known as Mitragyna speciosa, which we now recognize as kratom. He observed the indigenous people of Southeast Asia using kratom leaves for various purposes, such as chewing them for their stimulating and analgesic effects. This serendipitous discovery opened a window into the traditional uses of kratom in the region.

Contributions to Botanical Science

Apart from his discovery of kratom, Pieter Willem Korthals made numerous other significant contributions to the field of botanical science. He collected and documented a vast number of plant species, some of which were previously unknown to the Western world. His herbarium specimens and detailed descriptions enriched botanical knowledge and provided valuable resources for further research.

Korthals' work extended beyond plant collection and taxonomy. He contributed to the understanding of plant geography, plant morphology, and the ecological relationships of various species. His efforts helped lay the foundation for the study of biodiversity in Southeast Asia.

Legacy and Impact

Pieter Willem Korthals' legacy as a pioneering botanist endures through his contributions to the exploration and documentation of plant species in Southeast Asia. His discovery of kratom, while serendipitous, has had a lasting impact on both the scientific community and the broader world.

Kratom, as documented by Korthals, eventually found its way into the Western consciousness, with contemporary interest in its potential uses for pain management, mood enhancement, and opioid withdrawal. While the scientific understanding of kratom's pharmacology and safety is still evolving, Korthals' initial observations laid the groundwork for further investigation into this unique botanical specimen.

Korthals' dedication to the study of plants in their natural habitats advanced our understanding of the world's botanical diversity. His meticulous documentation of plant species, along with the samples he collected, continues to serve as valuable resources for botanical research and conservation efforts in Southeast Asia and beyond.


Pieter Willem Korthals, the Dutch botanist who discovered kratom during his explorations in Southeast Asia, made enduring contributions to the field of botany. His keen observations and meticulous documentation of plant species, including the serendipitous discovery of kratom, have left an indelible mark on botanical science. Korthals' work not only expanded our knowledge of plant diversity but also opened a window into the traditional uses of kratom in Southeast Asia, sparking interest and further research into this intriguing botanical specimen. His legacy as a pioneering botanist continues to inspire scientists and enthusiasts alike, reminding us of the endless wonders of the natural world.