Internationally renowned VCU researcher Billy Martin, Ph.D., dies

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Billy Martin, Ph.D.
Billy Martin, Ph.D.

Billy R. Martin, Ph.D., chair of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine’s Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, and internationally renowned for his research in understanding addiction and drugs of abuse and how they affect the brain, died Sunday in Richmond. He was 65.

Martin played a prominent role in developing the department’s reputation for landmark research in drugs of abuse. For more than 30 years, Martin’s primary focus was researching the effects of marijuana’s principal psychoactive ingredient, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. In the late 1970s, Martin was the first to show that most of the behavioral effects of marijuana were attributable to the compound THC, and his contributions to the study of cannabinoid receptors in the brain brought new life to what was once thought to be a dead-end field.

“Billy was a groundbreaking researcher whose work changed the landscape of addiction research in this country,” said Francis L. Macrina, Ph.D., VCU’s vice president for research. “His advice also was sought worldwide by those who would set marijuana-control policy.”

In 1997, Martin was awarded a National Institutes of Health Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) Award for his work in understanding the affect of marijuana on the brain. Martin also was asked by the National Institute of Drug Abuse to head an international program project grant on marijuana. Martin directed a team of prominent marijuana researchers from the United States and abroad in investigating anandamide, a naturally occurring marijuana-like substance in the brain.

Martin served as director of VCU’s NIDA Center for Drug Abuse Research, which attracted more than $20 million in federal funding.

In 1998, Martin was honored as a top contributor in science with a Virginia Top Scientist Award and received the VCU Distinguished Scholarship Award in 1996. He also was the first recipient of the Outstanding Inventor Award from the VCU Tech Transfer Office in recognition of his multiple patents based on his research.

Martin was to receive the Nathan B. Eddy Award on June 15, the highest honor awarded by the College on Problems of Drug Dependence. He also was scheduled to receive the VCU Award for Excellence, the highest honor that this University bestows on a faculty member, this fall.

Before joining VCU in 1976, Martin received postdoctoral training at the University of Uppsala in Sweden and the University of Oxford in England. He received his Ph.D. in pharmacology from the University of North Carolina in 1974. Martin served as the first president of the International Cannabis Research Society, adviser to the World Health Organization, a member of the Institute of Medicine Advisory Panel and president of the College on Problems of Drug Dependence.

“In the face of progressing disease, Billy was undaunted,” said Jerome F. Strauss, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the VCU School of Medicine. “He taught us all how to face the toughest of challenges with grace and dignity. Virginia Commonwealth University, the School of Medicine and the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology have lost one of their treasures.”  

Martin is survived by his wife, Jean Y. Martin; his son, Zachary Lee Martin; his daughter, Lindsay Brooke Martin; his brother, Donald Lee Martin; and his stepbrother, Elmer Mabe Jr. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Massey Cancer Center, P.O. Box 980037, Richmond, VA 23298-0037 or to The Foundation of Pharmacology, P.O. Box 980613, MCV Station, Richmond, VA 23298.