Professor Raphael Mechoulam, widely regarded as the ‘father of cannabis research’, died last week at the age of 92. We reflect on his pioneering work and the ‘irreplaceable’ loss and legacy he leaves behind.
Professor Raphael Mechoulam, one of the pioneers of cannabis science, passed away on Thursday 9 March at his Jerusalem home, aged 92.
The news was shared with the world on Friday 10 March in an obituary published by the International Cannabinoid Research Society (ICRS), of which Mechoulam was a founding member.
“It is with great sadness we report the passing of Raphael Mechoulam, PhD, Raphi,” the statement said.
“Raphi’s work paved the way for so much of the research of our Society’s Members and formed the cornerstone of knowledge leading to seminal discoveries on the endocannabinoid system. It cannot be overstated his significance in the many decades since his early discoveries.”
The news has left many reflecting on the impact of a career spanning almost six decades and a perseverance that has seen millions of patients benefit as a result.
Who was Professor Mechoulam?
Mechoulam was a leading Israeli chemist and researcher, best known for his pioneering work in the field of cannabis.
Born in Bulgaria in 1930, he immigrated with his family to Israel in 1949, where he later studied chemistry. He received his PhD at the Weizmann Institute (1958), with a thesis on the chemistry of steroids.
After postdoctoral studies at the Rockefeller Institute in New York, Mechoulam began his cannabinoid experiments in the 1960s in Israel as a professor at the Hebrew University School of Pharmacy.
He is widely regarded as the ‘father of cannabinoid research’ due to his ‘groundbreaking’ discoveries including that of the first endocannabinoids, which laid the foundation for the understanding of the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS) as we know it today.
His research team was the first to isolate plant-derived delta9-THC (THC), the main psychoactive compound in the plant, as well as cannabidiol (CBD) which would prove to have many medicinal properties.
Among Mechoulam’s many other achievements are the design and synthesis of numerous novel cannabinoids that have important therapeutic potential as pharmaceutical drugs.
Mechoulam helped form The Hebrew University Multidisciplinary Center for Cannabinoid Research (MCCR) in 2017 and was one of the founding members of the International Association for Cannabinoid Medicines (IACM) and the International Cannabinoid Research Society (ICRS).
The far-reaching impact of his work
Mechoulam’s discoveries significantly impacted the understanding of the ECS and as a result, the therapeutic potential of cannabis, paving the way for the development of new treatments in a range of conditions, including chronic pain, epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis.
As the first scientist of the modern world to recognise the medicinal benefits of cannabis, his research has become the founding principle for an ever-expanding evidence base which as a result, has enabled patients across the globe to access new life-changing treatments.
His work has also inspired new generations of scientists to enter the field of cannabis and continue building on his legacy.
The ICRS Raphael Mechoulam Award has now been established for over 20 years and is given to scientists who have made ‘continued meritorious, significant, and widely recognised contributions to cannabinoid and endocannabinoid research that have moved the discipline forward’.
Reflecting on his memory, the ICRS said: “Beyond his scientific achievements, Raphi was known for his commitment to promoting scientific curiosity and discovery, and for his generosity in mentoring and supporting other researchers in the field, including many members of our ICRS society.
“His work inspired, and continues to inspire, a generation of successful cannabinoid researchers. As such, he will be not only remembered for his specific contributions to cannabis and cannabinoid research, but also for his far-reaching impact on the scientific community and more broadly our global society.”
A scientist ahead of his time
In the days since the news of Mechoulam’s death broke, tributes have been paid by scientists, researchers and clinicians from across the globe, who have been impacted by his contribution to the field of medicinal cannabis.
Many recalled memories of meeting him personally and being inspired by not only his ideas and insights, but his perseverance in the face of scepticism. It would take several decades from the first publication of his findings on endocannabinoids before his ideas would be widely acknowledged and accepted by modern medicine.
Even today, the ECS is still not widely taught in medical schools and significant stigma remains among medical professionals about the therapeutic potential of cannabis.
Dr Sandra Carrillo a cannabis researcher, clinician and co-founder of the Colombian Medical Cannabis Association, told Cannabis Health: “I admire Professor Mechoulam and have followed his work for more than 10 years, he inspired me to educate doctors on the scientific evidence [behind cannabis], and the importance of persistence in the face of scepticism.
“I was blessed to be able to spend important quality time with him in his office at the Hebrew University four years ago. We spent over three hours together talking about his lifetime’s work, current breakthroughs and future prospects.”
She added: “That day I had the most enlightening conversations with him. He was a very kind, patient and giving person, sharing the precious gift of his time and knowledge at the age of 88-years-old. We feel his loss keenly in Latin America and his teachings are immortal.”
Meanwhile, one of the UK’s own pioneers of medicinal cannabis, Professor Mike Barnes, described Mechoulam as a ‘phenomenon’ with ideas ‘ahead of his time’.
“I had the privilege of meeting Raphael Mechoulam last year and he was still lively, entertaining and full of ideas,” said Professor Barnes.
“He was a phenomenon, the original pioneer of cannabis chemistry and the first in the modern era to recognise the huge medical potential of the plant.
“The trouble was that he was born too soon. His ideas were ahead of his time and the world was not ready to listen. Only in his ninth decade did the world wake up and begin to agree that cannabis is one of the most interesting and valuable medicines. I am glad that he lived to see cannabis become more accepted (although there is still a long way to go) and his ideas and vision come to some fruition.
Professor Barnes added: “His death is a huge and irreplaceable loss to the academic and medical field of cannabis medicine.”
Discoveries worthy of a Nobel Prize
During an almost 60-year career Professor Mechoulam has been nominated for over 25 academic awards, including the Heinrich Wieland Prize (2004), the Israel Prize in Exact Sciences – Chemistry (2000), the Israel Chemical Society Prize for excellence in research (2009) and EMET Prize in Exact Sciences – Chemistry (2012).
But many have commented that he should also have been honoured with a Nobel Prize for his discoveries. The prestigious award is given to those who have ‘conferred the greatest benefit to humankind’ in the fields of psychics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace.
“Raphi was one of the greatest scientists I ever met and was my teacher and mentor in many aspects,” said the Israeli scientist, Dedi Meiri, announcing the passing of his friend and colleague.
“I truly believe he deserved a Nobel prize.”
Dr Anne Katrin Schlag, head of research at UK drug reform charity, Drug Science, is in agreement that his work was worthy of recognition with the world’s most prestigious award.
“Mechoulam, widely regarded as the father of cannabis science… is a giant whose shoulders modern cannabis science stands on,” Dr Schlag told Cannabis Health.
“He was an amazing man, who should have won a Nobel Prize for his discoveries.”
“Long before cannabis became re-popularised as a Western medicine, he described cannabinoids as a ‘medical treasure waiting to be discovered’. I think the field owes him a lot for keeping this belief and for dedicating most of his scientific life to this plant.”
‘We will be forever grateful’
Alongside the medical and scientific community, many patients and advocates who have seen the benefits of medicinal cannabis first-hand have paid tribute to Mechoulam and his achievements.
Carola Perez, president of The Spanish Observatory for Medical Cannabis [Observatorio Español del Cannabis Medicinal] (OECM) and chair of the International Association of Cannabinoid Medicines (IACM) Patient Council, described him as ‘one of the greatest human beings’.
“It was a pleasure to invite him to Madrid at the first event we held with the Spanish observatory,” she said.
“He’s one of the greatest human beings I have ever met, always willing to help and provide us with the best information. We all remember him as a great maester.”
RIP Raphael Mechoulam. We will be forever grateful for the pioneering research you've done over the years, not only on the cannabis plant, but also the endocannabinoid system. Your legacy will be with us forever. #raphaelmechoulam #cannabinoidscience #Legacy #legend https://t.co/gRr7faFuix— IACM Patient Council (@IACMPatients) March 10, 2023
The UK representative of the IACM Patient Council, Zach Thompson, also shared his sadness in a LinkedIn post: “As an admirer of his work, I can’t begin to express how much his contributions have meant to the field and to science as a whole.
“His dedication to exploring the therapeutic potential of cannabis and his tireless work to remove the stigma surrounding it were truly inspiring.
“Despite his many achievements and accolades, Mechoulam remained humble and deeply committed to advancing our collective knowledge of the cannabis plant. His passion for his work was evident in everything he did, and it has left an indelible mark on the scientific community and beyond.
“As we mourn his loss, let us also celebrate his life and legacy. Raphael Mechoulam will always be remembered as a pioneer, a mentor, and a leader in the field of cannabis research. His impact will continue to be felt for generations to come, and his spirit will live on through the countless lives he touched and the countless discoveries he inspired.”
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