In Memoriam: Dr. David Musto

Dr. David F. Musto, the leading historian of drug policy in the United States died Oct. 8 while in Shanghai for a ceremony marking the donation of his books and papers on the history of drug policy to Shanghai University and the establishment there of a Center for International Drug Control Policy Studies.

Musto had been a member of the Yale faculty since 1969. He was internationally recognized as an historian of drug policy, and as a public intellectual interested in the long-term development of social issues, especially the history of controlled substances such as heroin, cocaine, and including alcohol. At Yale he was professor of child psychiatry in the Child Study Center and professor of the history of medicine at the School of Medicine. He was also a lecturer in the Department of History and the Program in American Studies, and a core faculty member in the Program in the History of Science and Medicine.

Musto received a B.A. in classical languages in 1956 and in 1963 an M.D., both from the University of Washington. While a medical student, he was awarded a fellowship by Yale to study the history of science and medicine and received an M.A. from Yale in 1961. Musto interned at the Pennsylvania Hospital, Philadelphia, and then served as a resident physician in psychiatry at Yale, completing his training in 1967. Following residency, he served in the U.S. Public Health Service as special assistant to the director of the National Institute of Mental Health until 1969. He concurrently held the position of visiting assistant professor of history at the Johns Hopkins University.

In his research on the social history of policies involving alcohol, narcotics, AIDS and mental health, he cultivated a vigorous dialogue between past and present. He published widely in professional journals and is particularly known for his path-breaking study of drug policy, “The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control,” published first in 1973; the volume has been in print (in multiple editions) ever since. His other books explored such subjects as the history of heroin and a documentary history of drugs and alcohol in America. His essays on social issues appeared in the general media such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post, and he was much in demand as a commentator on social policy by news magazines and television networks.

He was a member of the White House Strategy Council on Drug Abuse Policy during the Carter administration, historical adviser to the U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs from 1978 to 1980, a member of the National Council of the Smithsonian Institution from 1981 to 1990, and historical consultant to the Presidential Commission on the Human Immunodeficiency Virus Epidemic. He also served on the National Advisory Committee of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s program to combat drug and alcohol abuse, was a charter fellow of the College on Problems of Drug Dependence and was a member of the alcohol advisory committee of the National Association of Broadcasters.

At Yale he was a fellow of Davenport College, a member of the editorial advisory committee of the Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell, an active member of the Beaumont Medical Club, and curator of historical scientific instruments at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

Musto’s passions ranged from the Sherlock Holmes Society (a Baker Street Irregular, he presided over a talk each year at Yale that would relate Holmes to some larger issue, followed by a film screening, usually starring Basil Rathbone), to the preservation of the Grove Street Cemetery. He was known as a gifted storyteller with a dry sense of humor, who was admired by both his colleagues and the students in his popular Yale College lecture course, “Alcohol and Other Drugs in American Culture.” He was a member of the Standing Committee of the Grove Street Cemetery, where he will be buried.

Musto is survived by his wife Jeanne. Their four children include: Jeanne-Marie Musto of Sewanee, Tennessee; David Musto, wife Katie and children Kyle, Jonah and Hazel of Philadelphia; John Musto and wife Francesca of New York City; and Christopher Musto, wife Moriah and child Callum of Boston.

A memorial service will be held at noon on Dec. 18 in Dwight Chapel, 67 High St.