Gertrude L. Nilsson, 88, fought to get treatment for alcoholics

When social worker Gertrude L. Nilsson looked at an alcoholic, she saw hope where there was despair and believed in redemption where there was condemnation.

Mrs. Nilsson, who helped write the pioneering 1968 Maryland law that decriminalized public drunkenness and designated alcoholism an illness, died March 21 of respiratory failure at her home in Willimantic, Conn. She was 88 and formerly lived in Granite in Baltimore County.


An essential creed of Mrs. Nilsson's was, "Continue to love the alcoholic but don't love his alcoholic behavior."

Mrs. Nilsson, as described in The Evening Sun was a "5-foot 4-inch dynamo," who threw herself into her work as alcoholism program director of the division of alcoholism control of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, a position she held for 10 years until her retirement in 1972.


After working in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut as a caseworker for the Tuberculosis Association from 1930 to 1949, she came to Maryland to be executive director of the Maryland Association for Mental Health.

"She was a remarkable woman and one of my closet allies and colleagues," said Dr. Maxwell N. Weisman, 85, a psychiatrist who bTC retired in 1980 as head of the division of alcoholism control in the state Health Department.

"She could manifest the most remarkable compassion for alcoholics and helped develop legislation that created treatment, halfway houses and educational programs for alcoholics. Her work put Maryland in the forefront nationwide," said Dr. Weisman of Owings Mills.

"In her 'Ten Commandments of Alcoholism,' she stressed that the alcoholic was worth treating and with proper treatment could return to his family and livelihood," Dr. Weisman said.

The 1968 law, which was a legislative breakthrough in the United States, designated alcoholism as an illness. It called for and created broad prevention and treatment programs and fostered cooperation between public agencies and private organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

Said James R. Crook Jr., a retired Baltimore attorney and Guilford resident who, in 1968, was chief of legislation in the state attorney general's office and helped draft the law: "She was very charismatic. She was a warm and friendly person who was outspoken. Her good common sense contributed much to the passing of the law."

Mr. Crook said that until the law was enacted, a drunk could hope for nothing more than "a cot in jail and three squares for 10 days," and once released, quickly returned to his old ways.

Mr. Crook also credited Mrs. Nilsson with taking a public health approach rather than a criminal approach to alcoholism that resulted in "different attitudes and feelings about alcoholics."


Bob M., a 50-year recovering alcoholic and director of operations for the American Council on Alcoholism, said yesterday, "I've known no one who has done more in the state of Maryland for alcoholics than Gert Nilsson.

"She could walk with kings, peasants or ordinary street drunks because she was interested in people, and she was particularly happy helping alcoholics," he said.

Her work brought her many honors, including the naming of a Northeast Baltimore halfway house for female recovering alcoholics after her in 1986.

She was born Gertrude Lyons in Jersey City, N.J., and raised in Maplewood, N.J. She earned a bachelor's degree in 1930 from Douglas College, now part of Rutgers University. In 1962, she earned a master's degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania.

Her marriage to Oscar Nilsson ended in divorce.

Mrs. Nilsson participated in the civil rights and anti-war protest marches of the 1960s and 1970s and, after moving to Willimantic in 1989, continued her spirited protests from her wheelchair, often appearing in demonstrations to help people with acquired immune deficiency syndrome.


No services will be held.

She is survived by two sons, Andrew Nilsson of Willimantic and Christopher Nilsson of Cambridge, Vt.; a brother, John Lyons of Southport, N.C.; and four grandchildren.

Pub Date: 3/30/97