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Remembering Bob Schuster

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

NOTE: Dr. Charles Robert “Bob” Schuster passed away on February 21, following a sudden illness.  Bob was a remarkable figure in the modern history of substance abuse research.  Nancy Campbell and I had the great privilege of having Bob Schuster as one of the participants in our oral history project on addiction research.  Nancy conducted the interview back in 2007, one of the best in the series, which you can read here.  Nancy shares, here, this remembrance:

Bob Schuster was a jazz musician and a storyteller, a deeply political person who cared about the effects of drug policy on ordinary and extraordinary people, and a humane and compassionate scientist.  As a young person growing up in Camden, New Jersey, his parents’ home was a gathering place for jazz musicians that many referred to as “The 1020 Club.”  Playing underage at Philadelphia nightclubs, Bob personally witnessed close associates “just playing around” with heroin whose lives were transformed as they became addicted.  He spent his entire career in industry, academia, and government as a behavior analyst who set out to understand the behaviors associated with drug-taking–without moralism, without judgment or condemnation, as public health problems.

Credited with innovating the animal drug self-administration paradigm, Bob saw drugs as reinforcers. Finding that he didn’t have to “trick” animals into taking the very drugs that humans use as positive reinforcers despite negative consequences, he ushered in a new knowledge paradigm within behavioral pharmacology. He was imaginative, inventive, and found striking concordance between animal and human behavior. Whereas most people would see a world of difference between what was going on in the nightclubs of New Jersey, the monkey labs of the University of Michigan or Maryland, or human research in Chicago, he made connections that carried through his scientific career.

Bob was always willing to share stories about his own experiences with drugs, and those of family and friends. This was not quite as unusual in the laboratories of drug abuse researchers as it was in the world of federal drug policy. When he became director of NIDA in 1986 during the Reagan administration, Bob found himself a liberal in the midst of a den of conservatives who he saw as actively ignoring the advent of HIV/AIDS. He worked to create mechanisms through which federal support of harm reduction and a Medications Development Division could be put into place. Himself a leading-edge cocaine researcher, he steered NIDA through the crack-cocaine crisis and stepped down in 1992.

When I last saw Bob, he was regaling the breakfast table with stories of his days training animals to perform in commercials. He recounted these hijinks with a twinkle in his eye and an impish grin, with his wife, Chris-Ellyn Johanson, joining in. We will all miss his grace, his generosity, his sense of humor and humanity, and his commitment to the field.

Nancy D. Campbell Professor, Department of Science and Technology Studies Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

“Ultimately, no matter how well we understand the enzymatic and protein pathways of this that or the other thing in the cell, we’ve got to explain the behavior of the intact, integrated organism. The behavior is always right. It is ultimately the job of the biologist to be able to predict that behavior because the behavior is the reality. The behavioral effects of drugs are the reality.” –C. R. Schuster

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