Dr. Ira Allen Liebson, a retired Johns Hopkins psychiatrist who assisted patients with substance abuse, dies

Dr. Ira A. Liebson co-authored academic articles and textbook chapters on substance abuse.

Dr. Ira Allen Liebson, a retired Johns Hopkins psychiatrist who assisted patients with substance abuse issues, died of complications from injuries he suffered in a fall Oct. 25 at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The former Mount Washington and Riderwood resident was 91.

“He was a splendid psychiatrist and a wonderful person,” said Dr. Paul R. McHugh, the distinguished service professor for psychiatry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “He made a personal connection with his patients who felt they could call him at any time. He was the farthest thing from a checklist doctor. He took the time to know his patients.”


His daughter, Dr. Elizabeth Liebson of Cambridge said: “My father described himself as a genial introvert. He was funny, warm and wise. While on medical rounds, he made the other medical staff laugh. He also made his patients laugh.”

Born in 1930 in Passaic, New Jersey, Dr. Liebson was the son of Dr. Michael Liebson, a physician, and Dyna Subin, a homemaker. He was a 1948 graduate of Passaic High School.


As a teenager in the Great Depression, he worked at a printing company and set type and operated a press. He also commuted to a job in Manhattan where he candled eggs to determine whether they were fertilized and separated out double-yolk eggs for premium pricing.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in English at Muhlenberg College but changed his career plans to follow his father in medicine. He studied pre-med at Columbia University and received a medical degree from New York University in 1957.

He moved to Baltimore at age 26 in 1957 to do his medical residency at the Johns Hopkins Hospital and remained until 2013, when he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to be closer to his children.

He met his future wife, Dr. Marion Thomas, who was born in England, during their psychiatric residency training at Hopkins.

Dr. Liebson enjoyed classical music and opera, particularly the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Dr. Liebson worked at what is now the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center and spent about half his time treating general psychiatric patients, and the other half doing addiction treatment research in the behavioral pharmacology research unit.

He was also an associate professor of psychiatry at the Hopkins School of Medicine.

Dr. Liebson was the co-author of more than 100 academic articles and textbook chapters, primarily on substance abuse.


He worked as a part-time psychiatrist at the Hopkins Homewood campus’ Counseling Center and for the Social Security Administration in disability claims.

He was a major in the Air Force Reserve in 1960s, but as a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility, he spoke out on national television against the Vietnam War after personally witnessing the injuries of soldiers returning to the United States.

He was also interviewed on television by the Baltimore-born NBC reporter Cassie Mackin for a story on the behavioral pharmacology research unit where he worked.

“The unit was doing research on whether recovering alcoholics could safely have an occasional social drink, controversial then, as the conventional wisdom was, and still is, that recovering alcoholics must totally abstain from alcohol,” Dr. Liebson’s son, Michael, said.

Dr. Liebson enjoyed classical music and opera, and particularly liked the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. He attended performances of Baltimore’s Young Victorian Theatre Company.

“My father had an irreverent wit and could quote from Gilbert and Sullivan,” his daughter said. “And he was proud of his work in the behavioral treatment of alcohol.”


Dr. Liebson had varied musical tastes.

“He also listened to classical opera, and his enjoyment was aided by his conversance in German, Italian and French,” said his son. Dr. Liebson traveled to Germany in 2018 at age 88 with his daughters for the Leipzig Bach Festival.

He was an enthusiastic fan of the 18th century British writer and lexicographer Samuel Johnson and his biographer, James Boswell. In 2010, he and his family spent a week living in Boswell’s 18th century house in Scotland.

Dr. Liebson enjoyed combining travel with medicine, doing sabbatical assignments overseas in Munich, England and what was then the Soviet Union.

His family recalled that he said these of experiences: “You really get to understand a country by how they practice medicine.”

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Michael Liebson said his father was on a medical tour in Kyiv in 1986 during the Chernobyl disaster, just 90 miles away.


“There was no information about was going on, and everything they learned was through tour members hearing bits and pieces during phone calls to the West,” his son said.

Dr. Liebson was particularly known for his dry wit and irreverent sense of humor. At work, he was known as a mentor to younger colleagues, both physicians and other staff, on medical issues and personal issues.

Dr. Thomas, his wife of 59 years and a psychiatrist who was on the staffs of Springfield and the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt hospitals, died in 2017.

Plans for a memorial service for Dr. Liebson in Baltimore are pending.

In addition to his son and daughter, Dr. Liebson is survived by another daughter, Katherine Liebson Kraushaar of London, and five grandchildren.