A Tribute To Recovery Pioneer Herbert Kleber

There are many unsung heroes in our industry. People who make real progress in legitimizing what we do, but aren’t regularly featured in the national news. Thankfully, this past month The New York Times made a point to pay tribute to a key contributor to the recovery world. 84-year-old Dr. Herbert D. Kleber passed away on October 5 and left behind a tremendous legacy in the fight against addiction.


Starting in the late 1960’s, Dr. Kleber used his impeccable credentials (Ivy League education, medical residency at Yale) to focus on addiction; specifically de-stigmatizing it and bringing it to the national stage. He was one of the first prominent doctors to focus on “evidence-based treatment,” taking a scientific approach to the way we look at drug and alcohol dependencies.


Starting at Yale, in fact, Dr. Kleber founded and headed the Medical School’s drug dependence unit. While there, he helped develop treatments that helped patients reduce their withdrawal symptoms and avoid relapses. As New York Times writer Katharine Q. Seelye chronicled, “Dr. Kleber helped elevate the study of addiction to a discipline, and over the course of his career the field attracted increasing clinical interest and research funding.”


Dr. Kleber’s work won the respect and admiration of his medical colleagues as well. Dr. Francis R. Levin is the current director of substance abuse disorders at Columbia University’s Medical Center. That program was also initiated by Kleber and has been responsible for several scientific breakthroughs in addiction treatment.


“He was at the vanguard of bringing scientific rigor to the area of addiction,” Dr. Levin told The Times. “Things were actually tested. There were placebo control trials. He really was among the first to give credibility to the field.”


Dr. Kleber’s most public moment occurred in 1989, when then-president George H.W. Bush appointed him deputy to the country’s first drug czar. This was at a time when America’s “war on drugs” was in full swing, giving Kleber several years of national attention to spread his message.


After that stint ended Dr. Kleber continued his work, co-founding The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. Even right at the end of his life, he consulted with various universities and gave recovery lectures across the country.


Noted for his indelible optimism, Dr. Kleber did offer one famous quote that many of his peers and followers reference to this day.


“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.