Dr. Morris E. Chafetz, who played an important role in changing the public perception of alcoholism from social crime or personal failing to a disease requiring treatment, died on Oct. 14 at his home in Washington. He was 87.
The cause was suicide, his son Marc said. Dr. Chafetz’s wife of more than 60 years, the former Marion Donovan, died the previous day at an assisted-living facility in Bethesda She was 86.
Dr. Chafetz (pronounced CHAFE-etz), the first director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, became a leading spokesman for the problems of alcoholism and its treatment purely by accident. After he finished his training as a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in 1954, there was only one job available: starting an alcohol treatment center that the state had just provided money to create.
No other psychiatrist would take the job. Dr. Chafetz did so only reluctantly.
“I did not think much of alcoholic people,” he told the journal Alcohol Health and Research World in 1995. “I did not like them; I just was not the least bit interested in them.”
He quickly changed his opinion.
“It only took me a few months of listening to these patients to recognize my prejudices and the prejudices of others,” he said. “I realized that this issue reflected every social health policy problem being faced by the country.”
In 1970 Dr. Chafetz was invited by Elliot L. Richardson, the secretary of health, education and welfare under President Richard M. Nixon, to work on alcoholism issues at the National Institute of Mental Health.
Behind the scenes, he lobbied for the creation of a new federal agency devoted to the problems of alcoholism. When Congress approved legislation for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism to coordinate all federal programs dealing with the issue, he was offered the job of director.
This time, he jumped at the opportunity.
“Who gets the chance to start a federal agency in their area of expertise, the field they have studied for years?” he said. “It really was the greatest five years of my life.”
Dr. Chafetz started in 1970 with an annual budget of $6.5 million. By 1975, when he left, the budget was $214 million, which supported grants for programs in the United States and abroad to educate the public about alcoholism and to support its prevention and treatment.
“Having experienced the extent of my own prejudices and my own ignorance of the issue, I was bound and determined to turn the country around and to treat alcoholics as ill human beings who needed treatment, not as bad people who should be ignored and neglected,” Dr. Chafetz told Alcohol Health and Research World.
“I remember saying in one of my first speeches that alcoholism was America’s most treatable untreated illness, and I still feel that way,” he said.
Morris Edward Chafetz was born on April 20, 1924, in Worcester, Mass. His parents were Jewish emigrants from what is now Belarus, and his father worked as a dry-goods salesman.
After earning a bachelor’s degree from Tufts in 1944, he served in the Army, then returned to Tufts for his medical degree, which he received in 1948.
He met his wife at a school dance and married her in 1946. In addition to his son Marc, of Washington, he is survived by two other sons, Gary, of Cambridge, Mass., and Adam, of Potomac, Md.; a brother, Samuel, of Worcester; and six grandchildren.
Dr. Chafetz regarded alcoholism as a complex interplay of social and psychological factors, and he often argued that presenting wine, beer and spirits as a normal part of life, rather than alluringly illicit substances, might encourage responsible drinking.
On one occasion, he proposed that schools teach children how to drink responsibly, starting with heavily diluted sherry in grade school. “Alcohol is here to stay, and people must learn to develop a healthy attitude toward it,” he told a professional conference held by the New York Academy of Sciences in 1966.
He emphasized scientific findings showing the health benefits of moderate drinking, opposed total abstinence as a social ideal and promoted the Mediterranean approach to alcohol consumption: in company, with food and never with the goal of intoxication.
These views were reflected in his books “Liquor: The Servant of Man” (1965), “Why Drinking Can Be Good for You” (1965) and “Drink Moderately and Live Longer: Understanding the Good of Alcohol” (1995), written with his wife.
After leaving the alcoholism institute, Dr. Chafetz became the president of the Health Education Foundation, a charitable organization supported by the public and the liquor industry. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan appointed him chairman of the education and prevention committee of the Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving.
He wrote many books on alcoholism and its treatment, including “Alcoholism and Society” (1962, written with Harold W. Demone), “The Alcoholic Patient: Diagnosis and Management” (1983) and “The Encyclopedia of Alcoholism” (1982, written with Robert O’Brien).