Innovator in Treatment for Drug Use Disorder

Liebson was an early proponent of addressing behavioral health.

Published in Hopkins Medicine - Winter 2022

Psychiatrist Ira A. Liebson, who was among the first to advocate for addressing the behavioral aspect of drug use disorders and who co-founded the Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit (BPRU) at Johns Hopkins, died on October 25, 2021, at age 91.

Liebson, who served as an associate professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins from 1961 until the early 2000s, was known for his dry wit and irreverent sense of humor. He split his time between addiction treatment and research at the BPRU and treating patients at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. Liebson published more than 100 articles in his career.

A devoted clinician, he also treated patients at the Johns Hopkins University Counseling Center on the Homewood campus, the Social Security Administration in disability claims, and clinics on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Eric C. Strain, (HS & PGF, Psychiatry 1990), director of the BPRU, says Liebson was a pioneering researcher, a clinician who always looked to maximize the chances he could help somebody, and a colleague who gave well-balanced advice.

“As a researcher, his work [in behavioral health] was very innovative at the time,” he says. “He was the quintessential embodiment of taking care of people.”

After earning his M.D. from Columbia University in 1957, Liebson completed his internship at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1958, and followed with his residency at the hospital and Bayview (then called Baltimore City Hospitals) in 1963. He met his future wife, the late Marion Thomas, during their psychiatric residency.

In the early 1970s, he began research on alcoholism along with BPRU co-founders George E. Bigelow, Roland R. Griffiths and Maxine L. Stitzer. His work later turned to researching opioid dependence and treatment.

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