Dr. Marie Nyswander, Early Leader in Methadone Maintenance Treatment

Women have been active contributors to Mount Sinai Beth Israel since its founding in 1890. From the Ladies’ Auxiliary formed in MSBI’s first year of operation, to the first female House Staff member Dr. Nettie Shapiro in 1909, to so many on our front lines today, women’s contributions have always been essential to the operation of the hospital. This year for Women’s History Month, we’ll be featuring Dr. Marie Nyswander (1919-1986), a psychiatrist and an early leader in methadone maintenance in the treatment of heroin addiction. 

Dr. Nyswander was born in Reno, Nevada, and graduated from Sarah Lawrence College (1941) and Cornell University Medical College (1945). From there she joined the Public Health Service in Lexington, Kentucky, where she first worked with patients with addiction issues. She later received psychiatry training at New York Medical College, and published a book, The Drug Addict As A Patient, in 1956. The book was among the first which argued for treating addiction as a medical problem, rather than a moral failing, likely influenced by the dramatic increase chemotheraputic treatments for psychiatric disorders in the 1950s. She went on to chair the New York City Mayor’s Advisory Board on Narcotics in 1959 and worked at a clinic in East Harlem throughout the early 1960s, alongside her own private practice 

Photograph of Drs. Nyswander and Dole

Photograph of Drs. Nyswander and Dole

In 1964, she was invited by Dr. Vincent Dole, a physician at Rockefeller Hospital, to join a study on the biology of addiction, which ultimately led to the discovery of methadone as a treatment for heroin addiction. Drs. Nyswander and Dole married in 1965. From the late-1960s until her death in 1986, she was affiliated with Beth Israel Hospital, where thousands were eventually treated through the Methadone Maintenance Treatment Program. She also served on the President’s Advisory Board for Mental Health during the Carter administration. Both she and her work with Dr. Dole received many honors. 

Headline reads: "Methadone Credited With Rehabilitating 850 Addicts"

Article from January 20, 1969 issue of “Drug Topics”

Dr. Nyswander was a fierce defender of what has been a controversial treatment since its inception. Though detractors argue that methadone replaces one opioid addiction for another, Nyswander and Dole saw that abstinence-focused treatments were not always effective and that the symptoms of withdrawal caused by detoxification were needlessly challenging and painful for the patient. Methadone, an opioid itself, prevents drug cravings and blocks the ‘high’ of heroin.

Dr. Nyswander passed away in 1986 at the age of 67.

 

Sources: 

Courtwright, David T., “The prepared mind: Marie Nyswander, methadone maintenance, and the metabolic theory of addiction,” Addiction 92, vol. 3 (1997): 257-265. Accessed March 23, 2021. 

Dole, Vincent, Biographical photographs, Arthur H. Aufses, Jr., MD Archives at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, NY. 

“Dr. Marie Nyswander Dies at 67; Expert in Treating Drug Addicts,” The New York Times (New York, N.Y.), April 21, 1986. Accessed March 23, 2021. 

Methadone Maintenance Treatment Program clippings, AA088.S003.SS001.B003.F029 – AA088.S003.SS001.B003.F047, Mount Sinai Beth Israel collection, Arthur H. Aufses, Jr., MD Archives at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, NY.