Beny J. Primm, a doctor who started some of New York City’s first methadone clinics to treat heroin addicts in the 1960s and who, during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, became a nationally prominent advocate for changing public health policy toward intravenous drug users, died on Oct. 16 in New Rochelle, N.Y. He was 87.
His daughter Annelle Primm confirmed the death.
Dr. Primm was treating trauma cases at Harlem Hospital in the early 1960s when he became aware of the havoc that drug addiction was causing. “As an anesthesiologist, I saw young people in the E.R., their bodies riddled with bullet and knife wounds,” he wrote in his 2014 memoir, “The Healer: A Doctor’s Crusade Against Addiction and AIDS,” written with John S. Friedman. “I knew that behind this devastation was the scourge of drugs, and I made a promise to myself that I would work to stop these black kids from going down.”
In 1969, he founded the Addiction Research and Treatment Corporation, which opened a methadone clinic in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn and, within a few years, a half-dozen treatment centers in Brooklyn and Manhattan. He became recognized as an authority on heroin addiction and its treatment.
Dr. Primm saw his first AIDS case in 1983 when examining an addict at one of his treatment centers. As tests became available for H.I.V., the virus that can lead to AIDS, he discovered that more than 40 percent of his patients were infected with the virus. The finding turned him into an outspoken advocate for clean-needle programs and robust information campaigns aimed at high-risk populations.
“IV substance abusers multiply in greater numbers than gays,” he told The New York Times in 1985. “They’re dying more frequently than gays. We now have to turn the spotlight on IV substance users.”
He was particularly concerned about the disease’s impact in minority communities.
Beny Jene Primm was born on May 21, 1928, in the coal town of Williamson, W.Va. His father and uncle owned a funeral home, and his mother taught in a one-room schoolhouse in a nearby town. Because of the family business, local doctors often visited, and from early childhood Beny set his sights on entering the medical profession.
In 1941, the family moved to the Bronx, where Beny attended DeWitt Clinton High School. He was an indifferent student and, after failing the state Regents exam twice, graduated with a general rather than an academic diploma in 1945.
At West Virginia State University, a historically black institution near Charleston, he improved only slightly as a student but thrived in the R.O.T.C. After graduating in 1950, he was assigned to the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg and trained as a paratrooper.
With lackluster academic credentials, he looked outside the United States for a medical school after leaving the Army in 1953. Having studied German in college, he enrolled in the Heidelberg University but, for financial reasons, left after a year.
Without knowing French, he entered the University of Geneva, where he received a medical certificate and, in order to practice in the United States, the more advanced diploma in 1959. To satisfy the requirements for a diploma, he wrote a thesis on the effects of morphine and chlorpromazine on hypothermia in guinea pigs.
While studying in Geneva he had an externship at Morrisania Hospital in the Bronx in obstetrics and gynecology, which he greatly enjoyed. As a resident at Meadowbrook Hospital on Long Island, however, he found that many white patients did not want to be treated by a black doctor. He became an anesthesiologist instead, taking a job at Harlem Hospital in 1963.
Because of his AIDS work, Dr. Primm was named to Ronald Reagan’s Presidential Commission on the Human Immunodeficiency Virus Epidemic in 1987. When the commission drafted a 600-point plan for dealing with the AIDS crisis, he inserted the recommendation that intravenous drug users be given treatment on demand.
Under President George Bush, Dr. Primm served on the National Drug Abuse Advisory Council and was associate administrator of the Office of Treatment Improvement (later the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment), an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services that works with state programs and community groups offering drug and alcohol treatment.
In addition to serving as executive director of the Addiction Research and Treatment Corporation (now Start Treatment and Recovery Centers) until his retirement in 2013, Dr. Primm was president of the Urban Resource Institute, which he founded in 1981 to provide career counseling and job training for addicts and to provide a safe haven for victims of domestic violence.
In addition to his daughter Annelle, Dr. Primm, who lived in New Rochelle, is survived by two daughters from his marriage to the former Annie Delphine Evans, who died in 1975: Martine Primm and Jeanine Primm Jones. Other survivors are a daughter from a later relationship, Eraka Bath Fortuit; his fiancée, Ellena Stone Huckaby; and two granddaughters.
By William Grimes - The NY Times/Oct. 24, 2015
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