Tribute: Herb Kleber’s ‘generosity of spirit’ matched by few


Editors’ Note: Herbert D. Kleber, MD, a pioneer in the field of addiction medicine, died Oct. 5, at the age of 84. At the time of his death, Dr. Kleber was professor of psychiatry and emeritus director of the division on substance use disorders at Columbia University in New York.

I met Herb Kleber in the fall of 1967, when my center at National Institute of Mental Health funded six new programs to treat opiate addiction in selected cities across the United States. Fifty-one years later, only one still survives – in New Haven, Conn.

Dr. Herb Kleber

Herb began his work at Yale University in an academic/psychoanalytic environment that, with few exceptions, had too little respect for, or understanding of, his work; with a state mental health administration that placed addiction treatment at the very bottom of its priorities; and, in a racially polarized community reeling from a murder and a highly politicized jury trial.

It was Herb’s creative genius that led to the formation and maintenance of the APT Foundation with a laserlike focus on successive waves of heroin, crack cocaine, and other drug epidemics. The board structure, the clientele, and the challenges of building and maintaining a program that supported cutting-edge treatment, education, and research could have made him feel like the principal character in a book by Mario Puzo. But Herb generated loyalty in those who worked for and with him not by fear, but by his generosity of spirit, his crediting the work of others, his supporting the advancement of junior colleagues, and by his deep respect and appreciation for everyone on the team. When I last checked, Roz (his dedicated administrator) was still on the job – and the program was still being led by people whom he trained.

Most importantly, in spite of his very busy work schedule, his top priority was his family.

In 1977, I became chairman of the department of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut. In 1978, my group received a 4-year center grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. By 1982, we had recruited three full professors and a talented assistant professor to our affiliated Veterans Affairs hospital. But in 1985, unfavorable changes at the Newington VA hospital led to the departure of those key faculty. Herb generously agreed to my request that we try to build collaborative bridges between our center and his programs in New Haven. This made it possible for Hank Kranzler at UConn and Stephanie O’Malley at Yale to launch their careers in clinical trials research. The collaboration that Herb generously provided likely saved our alcohol center. On a personal level, Herb and I began to have lunches halfway between New Haven and Farmington. We looked for ways to strengthen each other’s programs – but in 1989, Herb accepted an offer from President George H.W. Bush to join with William Bennett to launch a new White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

On a trip to Washington, I visited Herb in his White House office. I watched as he mentored young staff about the intricacies of federal drug policy, and he proudly showed off the first draft of the national action plan. When Bill Bennett decided to move on, Herb and his wife, Marian Fischman, got an offer from Herb Pardes (then chair of psychiatry and dean of the College of Medicine at Columbia) to create a dedicated addiction research center at that institution. Their success at Columbia was unprecedented in an environment that had no previous commitment to addiction treatment and research. The result has been a research program that spans neuroscience, clinical trials, and clinical quality improvement. Herb enabled the research careers of a whole new generation of leaders. Combining his years at Yale and Columbia, there has been no one in this field, or (I believe) in the rest of psychiatry, who comes close to being his equal in terms of the consequences of his mentorship: in the numbers, diversity, and success of his mentees.

In 1993, my wife and I moved to Washington. Despite the distance between New York and Washington, Herb and I remained good friends. Herb and Marian attended our daughter’s wedding. When Marian became ill, we feared the worst. After she died, we felt the depth of Herb’s loss. When, several years later, we met Annie Burlock Lawver, we felt profound joy. We were honored to be present at their wedding – and we truly enjoyed traveling together with them in Colombia, Spain, and Iceland.

Herb and Annie were on vacation in Greece with his son and daughter-in-law when he died suddenly of a heart attack while on the island of Santorini. When Annie called from Athens to tell us of Herb’s death, I felt a powerful unease – a sense that the world suddenly seemed more vulnerable. Especially in the age of Trump, Herb’s honesty, integrity, humility, and effectiveness served as an essential counterweight to frustration and despair.

Dr. Roger Meyer, former chair of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut, New Haven

Dr. Roger Meyer

To those who knew his love (like Annie, his children, grandchildren, and great granddaughter, and his dog Sparky), it was total and unconditional. He brought this boundless caring to mentorship and to friendship. His humor could light up a room. His generosity of spirit is matched by too few leaders in academia. It was my privilege to be counted among his friends. He was one of a kind, and I will miss him.

Dr. Meyer is former chair of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut, New Haven. He also served as principal investigator of the Alcohol Research Center and executive dean at UConn. In addition, Dr. Meyer is former vice president of health affairs at George Washington University in Washington, former CEO of Best Practice Project Management (a consulting company), and former professor of psychiatry at Pennsylvania State University, Hershey.

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