Griffith Edwards, 83; psychiatrist reshaped views of addiction


NEW YORK — Griffith Edwards, a psychiatrist who helped establish addiction medicine as a science, formulating definitions of drug and alcohol dependence that are used worldwide to diagnose and treat substance abuse, died Sept. 13 in a hospice near his home in Greenwich, England. He was 83.

He died after a stroke, said his wife, Susan.

Dr. Edwards reshaped thinking about heavy drinkers and their problems, about the psychology of drug use and its treatment, and about the policy implications for governments and health agencies seeking to reduce abuse.

He was among the first doctors to perform careful studies of Skid Row drinkers and of talk therapies for addictive drinking — these at a time, in the 1960s, when habitual drunkenness was considered a moral failing and virtually the only treatment was to dry out.


In 1975, Dr. Edwards took what had been a respected but obscure medical journal, The British Journal of Addiction, and turned it into the field’s flagship platform, publishing the top research findings from around the world.

In 1976, working with Dr. Milton M. Gross, he examined what was then loosely known as alcoholism. The two determined that a true drinking problem had several discrete, measurable components, like craving, heightened tolerance, loss of control, and physical withdrawal symptoms. That description became the basis for the definition of drug or alcohol dependence in two of the most influential diagnostic manuals, from the American Psychiatric Association and the World Health Organization.

James Griffith Edwards, who was known as Griff, was born in what is now the Uttar Pradesh state of India, where his father worked as a veterinary bacteriologist. The family moved back to England in 1929, and he received his early education from his mother.

He won a scholarship to Oxford and, after serving in the military, graduated from Balliol College in 1951 with a degree in animal physiology. He later added a master’s degree and a medical degree and began his career as a lecturer in 1966 at London’s Institute of Psychiatry at Maudsley Hospital, now part of King’s College London.


By the time Dr. Edwards became a professor of addiction behavior at the institute, in 1979, he was a star in the emerging field of addiction medicine, having directed the institute’s addiction research unit. In 1991, he helped establish England’s National Addiction Center.

To the end of his long career, Dr. Edwards was part scientist and part missionary, writing hundreds of papers and contributing to more than 30 books. In recent years, he wrote two books for lay readers: ‘‘Alcohol the Ambiguous Molecule’’ (2000) and ‘‘Matters of Substance’’ (2004). He consulted regularly with governments and with the World Health Organization on policy making.

Dr. Edwards maintained a steadfast skepticism of prohibitive measures.

‘‘He was a real wine connoisseur, and there was always a cocktail before dinner,’’ said Thomas F. Babor of the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. ‘‘He was a strong believer in social drinking.’’

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