Sadly, the recent news of Dr. Herbert D. Kleber’s passing did not make the front page headlines like it deserved. Yet in his 84 years of life, Dr. Kleber undisputedly did more to help humankind that any music celebrity or sports star. As The New York Times properly stated, he was “a pioneer in researching the pathology of addiction and in developing treatments to help those in recovery.”
Dating back to the 1970’s, Dr. Kleber’s work helped increase clinical interest and research funding for those battling alcoholism and substance abuse. His prestigious reputation as a Yale professor helped add credibility to the cause, eventually capturing the attention of President George H. W. Bush. In fact, by 1989 Dr. Kleber had been named as the nation’s first drug czar; lending a legitimate voice to the war on addiction.
As his colleague, Columbia University Medical Center director Dr. Frances R. Levin told The Times, Dr. Kleber was able to successfully bring addiction into the scientific communities, helping to reduce its previous stigmas.
“He was at the vanguard of bringing scientific rigor to the area of addiction,” Dr. Levin explained. ““Things were actually tested. There were placebo control trials. He wasn’t the only one, but he was among the first to give credibility to the field.”
Beyond that, Dr. Kleber co-founded the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, which helped train generations of professionals and recovery specialists from across the country. He also had a prominent stint at Columbia University, helping to establish the school’s division on substance use disorder. Eventually that would become one of the largest and most successful research programs of its kind in the country. And never one to rest on his laurels, Dr. Kleber remained on staff there until his sudden passing.
The other defining trait of Dr. Kleber that was continuously referenced in his obituary was his unflinching optimism. Despite enduring several challenges in his mission to de-stigmatize addiction, Dr. Kleber was said to have always remained upbeat and undaunted.
One of his most famous quotes occurred during his Senate confirmation hearing to become U.S. Deputy Drug Czar. When asked how he could remain so positive after decades of working with severe addicts, he simply responded…
“The day is short. The task is difficult. It is not our duty to finish it, but we are forbidden not to try.”
Rest In Peace, Dr. Kleber.