JERUSALEM – Raphael Mechoulam, PhD, a professor and researcher at Hebrew University School of Pharmacy, passed away in Jerusalem in early March. He was 92.
In the 1960s, Mechoulam’s pioneering research on cannabis isolated the popular (and now commercially lucrative) cannabinoids tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), earning him the honorary appellation “Father of Cannabinoid Research.”
“Most of the human and scientific knowledge about cannabis was accumulated thanks to Professor Mechoulam,” said Hebrew University President Asher Cohen, who called Mechoulam “a sharp-minded and charismatic pioneer. He paved the way for groundbreaking studies and initiated scientific cooperation between researchers around the world.”
Mechoulam was born in Bulgaria in 1930 into a distinguished Sephardic Jewish family. World War II uprooted the family and sent his father to a concentration camp. Reunited after the war, the family emigrated to the newly established State of Israel in 1949, and young Mechoulam resumed his study of chemistry at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. After earning a PhD at the Weizmann Institute, Rehovot (1958), and postdoctoral studies at the Rockefeller Institute in New York (1959–60), he accepted a position on the scientific staff of the Weizmann Institute. While there (1960-65), he focused on the isolation, structure elucidation, and total synthesis of the main active components of cannabis.
Purifying cannabinoids enabled Mechoulam and other researchers to locate the receptors the substances trigger in the brain and eventually identify similar endogenous cannabinoids produced in the human body. These findings led to the elucidation of the endocannabinoid system, now recognized for its role in a wide range of bodily functions from sleep and pain to inflammation and appetite. The groundbreaking discovery opened an entirely new field of cannabinoid research with profound and widespread therapeutic potential. In 2007, Mechoulam predicted: “I believe the cannabinoids represent a medicinal treasure trove which waits to be discovered.”
In 1972, Mechoulam became a full professor at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem; in 1975, he was named the Lionel Jacobson Professor of Medicinal Chemistry. From 1979 to 1982, he served as the university’s rector. In 2017, he helped found the Hebrew University Multidisciplinary Center for Cannabinoid Research.
Mechoulam received numerous academic awards, including the Heinrich Wieland Prize (2004), an honorary doctorate from Complutense University in Madrid (2006), 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). He is one of the founding members of the International Alliance for Cannabinoid Medicines and the International Cannabinoid Research Society. In 1994, he was elected to the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.
“The world has lost a giant in the scientific research community and a pioneer in the medical cannabis field,” said Joshua Rednik, chief executive officer for American Friends of the Hebrew University. “His significant contributions will live on in future research and exciting new discoveries in Israel and beyond.”