October 15th, 2018

A Sad Loss For The Addiction Field

I am writing this article as I return from the funeral of Dr. Herb Kleber, who died at the age of 84 on October 5th. During his 50-year professional career, Herb’s clinical and administrative achievements in the field of addictions were remarkable in their breadth:

  • Establishing a comprehensive, community-based addiction treatment center at Yale University and a separate charitable foundation to support it
  • Conducting early research on the use of clonidine for opioid withdrawal management as well as on the use of methadone, naltrexone, and buprenorphine for longer-term treatment
  • Working while in the federal ONDCP “drug czar’s office” to extend the gold standard Monitoring the Future survey to include 8th and 10th graders as well as increasing the frequency of the national drug use study (NSDUH) from every three years to annually
  • Establishing at Columbia University one of the most substantial addiction research institutions in the world

In each of these endeavors, Herb Kleber was steadfastly devoted to evidence. He distinguished clearly between what worked well and should be kept, what worked partially and needed improvement, and what did not work or was harmful and should be discontinued.

These achievements were surpassed, however, by the impact that Herb had on other professionals. The number of addiction researchers and practitioners whom he inspired to follow his footsteps into the field of addictions is unparalleled. So many people who I admire and respect trace their professional lineage back to him. It was a tribute to him that his funeral was attended by so many leaders in the field.

I was fortunate to have had Herb as a mentor. Although I had brief contact with him when we were both at Yale in the 1960’s, my lack of interest in addictions at that time cost me the opportunity to have had an even longer relationship. When I met him again in the 1990’s he became one of my “go-to” experts — for questions regarding what was substantial and what was not — when new medications appeared. What impressed me the most, however, was his ability to effectively negotiate the potential minefields of controversy that are all too prevalent in the addictions field. He would do this in the most honest and direct manner, always maintaining his integrity while calming tense situations with his humor. In the end, he would get things done despite repeated attempts by others to shut down or even burn down his programs.

I encourage others to enjoy Herb’s wisdom and good humor by reading a 2012 interview of him by William White.

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