Stockbridge Professor Emeritus Dr. Lyle Craker passed away on May 15 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.  Craker led the medicinal plant program at UMass, and his research into medicinal plants spanned several decades.  He was an early proponent of scientific research into the medicinal properties of the cannabis plant, especially its anti-emetic and hunger-stimulating effects for pediatric cancer patients suffering the side effects of chemotherapy.

Craker grew up in a small rural town in Wisconsin, and worked hard to become a world-famous plant scientist, professor, and writer.  After serving as an army flame thrower in the Vietnam War, young Craker’s scientific talents were recognized and he was re-assigned by the US Army to Fort Detrick to research the after-effects of Agent Orange on vegetation.

Craker earned his PhD in agronomy and plant genetics from the University of Minnesota in 1967.  Upon joining the Department of Plant, Soil and Insect Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1969, Craker first researched the agricultural effects of acid rain. He also helped apple growers by proving that exposure to red light decreases the rate at which apples prematurely fall off trees.  Craker later turned to studies of medicinal and aromatic plants.

While presenting his work at conferences around the world, Craker was approached by the parents of children with cancer and asked if he would directly advocate for the federal government to allow promising research into the medical benefits of cannabis and cannabis derivatives to continue.

Dr. Craker’s inquiries revealed that the very limited supply of federally-approved cannabis was too weak to be used in meaningful medical research.  Beginning in 2001, Craker made many applications to the DEA and related federal agencies, seeking federal permission to cultivate cannabis for research purposes, and advocating for the safety and potential benefits of such research.  His efforts led to a lawsuit against the DEA that was supported by members of the US House and Senate, as well as the ACLU.

Sadly, a lack of political support at that time prevented the federal approvals sought by Craker, and his request was rejected by the Bush administration in 2009.  Since then, 39 states and Washington DC have legalized medical cannabis, and the National Institutes of Health is funding new research into “the mechanisms by which cannabis and cannabinoids affect cancer biology, cancer interception, cancer treatment and resistance, and management of cancer symptoms.” ( Craker is recognized as a key figure in the emergence of medical cannabis research.

However, Craker’s push for expanded marijuana research is only a fraction of his broad range of studies, which includes dozens of herbs, spices, and medicinal plants. 

Craker served as executive editor for the Journal of Medicinally Active Plants, was an expert advisor for the field’s canonical Botanical Safety Handbook, and founded the American Council for Medicinally Active Plants.

In 2014, the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) honored Dr Craker with their Herbal Insight Award for his efforts to significantly increase “understanding of botanicals and their uses.” 

Students will remember his course in “Herbs, Spices and Medicinal Plants.”  On campus, Craker organized University HerbFest, an annual event in which his students showcased the properties and uses of herbs and medicinal plants in general. 

Craker taught many students from around the world, both undergraduates and students in the UMass Plant Biology Graduate Program, who in turn have passed on his knowledge and passion to others. 

With over 150 publications, Craker was still actively publishing as recently as 2021.  His internationally published research can even be found in the historic Library of Alexandria Library in Egypt.

“I remember Lyle for his support when I was a newly hired faculty member and he was my assigned faculty mentor.  I’ll always be grateful for his guidance,” said J. Scott Ebdon, Professor of Agronomy and Turfgrass Science.  “Lyle and I shared a common office area for some 12 years in the basement of Stockbridge Hall.  We share a lot of fun times together.  I’ll miss him.”

Craker is described by his daughter as loving “animals, music, traveling, children, and teaching.  A memorial service in Amherst is planned for August 27 at 1pm at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Amherst Massachusetts. 

Read Dr. Craker’s online obituary: