Google Honors Addiction Treatment Pioneer Dr. Herbert D. Kleber

By Kelly Burch 10/03/19

Kleber, who died last year, was honored with a very special Google Doodle on Tuesday. 

Image: 
Dr. Herbert D. Kleber
Photo via YouTube

If you used the Google search engine on Tuesday, you would have seen a Google Doodle honoring Dr. Herbert D. Kleber, who spent more than 50 years pioneering addiction treatment, including the use of medication-assisted treatment for substance use disorder. 

Kleber, who died last year at the age of 84, began his medical career in 1964, with an assignment to the Public Health Service Prison Hospital at Lexington, Kentucky. There, he was saw firsthand how people with substance use disorder were treated, according to CNN

“Most people didn’t get therapy. Most people had work therapy,” Kleber said in an oral history for Columbia University, where he later worked. “They’d be assigned to the kitchen. They’d be assigned to the farm. They’d be assigned to the woodshop, which made furniture. They’d be assigned to the laundry, whatever, whatever.”

A Thought Leader Who Knew Early On That Treating Addiction As A Moral Failing Was Wrong

At the time, most saw addiction as a moral failing, but Kleber could see that it was actually the treatment system that was failing patients. 

“There was about a 90% relapse rate within the first 90 days,” he said. 

Two years later, Kleber returned to Yale.  

“The last thing in the world I wanted to do was to treat addiction,” he said. “But once you had been at Lexington, you were a marked man. That is, people sought you out who thought you might know something about treating addiction.”

He realized that studying addiction might be his “fate,” and received funding from the National Institutes of Health to devise a treatment program that would help people stay sober. Kleber integrated methadone treatment with a community-based behavioral model. Over the years he tried many medications for treating addiction to a variety of substances. 

He Oversaw The National Policy Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse With His Wife

Kleber became the Deputy Director for Demand Reduction at the Office of National Drug Control Policy in 1989, despite the fact that some people opposed his appointment. He was seen as “soft on drugs” because he favored medication-assisted treatment. After that, Kleber worked at Columbia University, overseeing the National Policy Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse with his wife, Marian Fischman.

Kleber said in his oral history, which was recorded in 2015, that there’s still strife between 12-step and medication-assisted treatment models, but he believed that would change as long-acting and non-addictive treatments for substance use disorder, like Vivitrol, became more widely available.

“As those get perfected, you’re going to see important changes in how treatment is carried out,” he said. 

Tuesday (Oct. 1) marked the 23rd anniversary of Kleber’s election to the National Academy of Medicine.

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.