Leroy Creasy, touter of red wine’s health benefits, dies at 84

Leroy Creasy ’60, M.S. ’61, whose research on the health benefits of grapes and red wine has spurred decades of public interest and scientific inquiry, died June 15 in Aurora, New York. He was 84.

Creasy, a professor emeritus of pomology in what is now the Horticulture Section of the School of Integrative Plant Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, was best-known for his work on resveratrol, a natural compound found most abundantly in red and purple grapes. In the early 1990s, Creasy identified resveratrol in red wine and posited that this heart-healthy, cancer-fighting compound might explain the “French paradox” – why Mediterranean populations that had relatively high smoking rates, high-fat diets and higher wine consumption also suffer fewer heart attacks and lived longer than populations with ostensibly healthier habits.

Resveratrol is a type of secondary metabolite – a compound created by a plant to ward off insects or fight disease. More than 70 species of plants produce resveratrol, including peanuts, cocoa beans and blueberries, but it occurs in highest amounts in the skin of red and purple grapes. Grapes produce resveratrol in response to disease pressure, especially from mildew – a common plague of grape growers in New York – and Creasy found that New York-grown grapes were higher in this beneficial compound than grapes grown in sunnier climates. Later research showed that resveratrol production can also be triggered by UV radiation.

Creasy’s discoveries drew tremendous public attention, including features on “60 Minutes” and in the New York Times, said Marvin Pritts, professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science, Horticulture Section. They also drew controversy, as some public health officials and other researchers warned against the negative effects of increased alcohol consumption. Proving or disproving a connection between red wine and heart health will always be difficult, because such studies rely on correlational observations, Pritts said.

“Resveratrol was getting loads of press; Le’s phone was ringing a lot,” Pritts said. “Resveratrol is definitely beneficial for health, but the jury is still out on whether wine is good for you.”

Even so, Creasy’s findings boosted the fortunes of wineries across the country, especially in New York, as people sought out red wines, said Glen Creasy ’88, Leroy Creasy’s son and a viticulturist and co-owner of Terre des 2 Sources, a vineyard and winery in the south of France.

“His work created some controversy, but it also certainly generated a lot of other research into the healthful and not-so-healthful components of wine,” said Glen Creasy, who worked for 19 years as a lecturer in viticulture in New Zealand before moving to France. “He made a really significant impact, from both a scientific and a public perspective.”

Leroy Creasy was a member and past president of the Phytochemical Society, the American Society for Horticultural Science and the Scientific Advisory Board of the California Table Grape Commission.

After his retirement from Cornell in 1998, Creasy and his wife, Min ’60, bought a 160-acre farm in Aurora, where they grew table grapes (grapes meant to be eaten fresh, rather than processed into jam, juice or wine) and published together. Creasy continued experimenting in his vineyard and established procedures to increase resveratrol levels in his grapes, Glen Creasy said. Father and son also co-wrote two editions of the book, “Grapes,” a crop production handbook published by the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International.

Leroy Creasy was born Feb. 21, 1938, and grew up in the outskirts of New York City. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis, then spent one year as a National Science Foundation fellow at the University of Cambridge, England. He joined the Cornell faculty in 1965. Creasy is survived by Min, his wife of 62 years; sons James ’86 and Glen; and four grandchildren.

Krisy Gashler is a writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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