In memoriam: Dr Richard Saitz

Dr Richard Saitz, a long-time collaborator with many people at Addiction journal and the...
Created On: 28 March 2022   (Last updated: 28 March 2022)

Dr Richard Saitz, a long-time collaborator with many people at Addiction journal and the SSA sadly died in January 2022. Stefan Kertesz, Daniel Alford and Jeffrey Samet remember Richard as their colleague, mentor and friend.

Rich Saitz with his daughters, Isabella and Tatiana

Dr. Richard Saitz, a physician, and a remarkable addictions scholar, passed away on January 15, 2022 from pancreatic cancer. He was a Professor of Medicine and Public Health at Boston University (BU), and Chair of the Department of Community Health Sciences at BU’s School of Public Health. To say he was a remarkable scholar can’t do full justice to the impact he had on the many he cared for, taught, mentored and inspired. Nonetheless, we would like to share a word about both his scholarship, and the man behind it, who was “Rich” to us.

Rich’s research aimed to fix a longstanding weakness in how patients with substance use problems are treated in medical settings. Too often, homespun wisdom, weak evidence, and prejudicial attitudes and beliefs contributed to poor care. In his research, teaching and countless collaborations, Rich successfully addressed that weakness.

He did that by coupling transparently clear logic with a powerful capacity to get things done. And he did it, almost always, through nurturing teams. Among many studies Rich led and co-led, he sought evidence to questions like these:

  • Instead of patients receiving round the clock benzodiazepines for alcohol withdrawal, could the same benefits be obtained with fewer doses, triggered by symptoms? Yes.
  • Do brief interventions lead to improved outcomes for patients with unhealthy alcohol use? Yes, although, not for those with use disorders.
  • Do brief interventions lead to improved outcomes for patients with unhealthy drug use? Sadly, no.
  • Can a single screening question identify patients with drug use problems? Yes.

Those examples only scratch the surface of Rich’s scholarly contributions. It would take many more pages to enumerate Rich’s accomplishments as a leader across the journals he edited, the books he edited, and the organisations he led.

But we wish to share a personal comment on the man behind those accomplishments, at least as we saw him. One of us began as his mentor, another as his peer, another as his junior collaborator, until at some point we were all just colleagues.

As we saw him, Rich’s character facilitated collaboration on scholarly work. His warmth, wit and wisdom in human-to-human contact made so many of us cherish our contact with him.

Rich had a special way of demanding clarity on what evidence could support, and what it did not. It was brave, and insistent. Sometimes that meant challenging the already ‘established’ ideas that were lacking evidence, including those held by the organisations that funded his research.

In a different person such admirable precision could have come across as dry, pedantic or confrontational. But not in Rich. In scientific discussion, Rich injected warmth, and sense of humor, coupled with his own willingness to stick up for people who get the short end of the stick.

As an advocate, he chided the journalistic reports that stigmatise people with substance use problems. He also declared, forthrightly, his support for people with pain who receive prescribed opioids, and who had been caught in the crossfire of an American correction.

For each person who met him, it is likely that Rich’s particular impact will be a little different. He helped us gain a deeper respect for evidence, and for clarity of expression. But along with that, he helped many embrace warmth and even humor in our efforts not just to be better scholars, but better people.


Stefan G. Kertesz, MD, MSc
Heersink UAB School of Medicine & Birmingham Veterans Affairs Medical Center

Daniel P. Alford, MD, MPH
Boston University School of Medicine

Jeffrey H. Samet, MD, MA, MPH
Boston University School of Medicine

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