After Vietnam duty, doctor devotes career to combating alcoholism
Updated: Jan 8
By Bruce Deckert
Today Magazine Editor-in-Chief
AFTER SERVING IN THE VIETNAM WAR, where he saw combat duty as a sergeant in the U.S. Army, Victor Hesselbrock went to graduate school. In 1977 he earned his doctorate, and in 1978 — a decade after he was drafted — he pursued another type of combat: the fight against alcoholism.
A Canton resident, Dr. Hesselbrock came to UConn in 1978 to direct the fledgling Alcohol Research Center at UConn’s School of Medicine, which had begun earlier that year.
Today, Hesselbrock remains the center’s director. He is also the senior associate dean for research at the School of Medicine and vice chairman (and professor) for the Department of Psychiatry.
“Being able to conduct productive research on such an important public health problem is tremendously fulfilling,” Hesselbrock says. “Without a doubt, the work of the UConn Alcohol Research Center has made a real difference in many lives directly and indirectly affected by alcoholism.”
Hesselbrock was drafted after graduating from Texas Christian University in 1968, and he served all of ’69 in Vietnam. He notes that alcohol and drug abuse can be an issue in the military.
“There were a number of younger guys in my squad who did drugs, who drank more than they should have,” says Hesselbrock, 73, who was 22 when he was conscripted.
Asked if he has watched any Vietnam movies, he said no — and he has little interest in doing so.
“There’s no way that Hollywood can capture the sights, sounds and smells of combat,” he says. “Combat is as chaotic as can be imagined.”
The sights, sounds and smells of alcohol abuse are sadly familiar to alcoholics and their families. Accordingly, Hesselbrock and his team have dedicated their careers to combating a scourge that exacts a painful toll on individuals and society.
Statistics from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on alcohol use disorder illustrate the toll in stark detail. While alcoholism is the typical societal term for problem drinking, alcohol use disorder is a diagnosis used by medical professionals for the more severe form.
In 2015, 6.2% of American adults had the disorder, per the NIH. A logical caveat: The percentage of problem drinkers in the U.S. is higher than this number — perhaps much higher — because few alcoholics seek treatment. Among those afflicted by the disorder, only 6.7% sought and received treatment in 2015.
The life-and-death impact is staggering: About 88,000 people have died from alcohol-related causes annually in recent years, which means alcohol abuse is the third-leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., per the NIH. The first is tobacco use, the second is physical inactivity/poor diet — and all three issues frequently occur together, says Hesselbrock. In 2014, 31% of driving fatalities were alcohol-related. Then there’s the economic impact: In 2010, alcohol misuse cost the U.S. $249 billion.
These sobering stats point to a national tragedy that Hesselbrock and his colleagues have confronted head-on … with the urgency of an intervention.
Among his team of about 10, Hesselbrock works with two fellow Canton residents — Dr. Tom Babor and Dr. Howard Tennen — and a Simsbury resident, Dr. Jonathan Covault. Hesselbrock lived in Avon from 1979-98, moving to Canton in ’98.
The significance of their work is magnified by the unprecedented NIH grants that have funded the work of the Alcohol Research Center for 40-plus years. The first grant was awarded in 1978. In five-year increments, the grant has been renewed ever since — most recently in June, to the tune of $7.5 million — for a longevity that is unparalleled nationally. Hesselbrock notes that he was hired to kick-start the initial grant.
“I was thinking at best we would be one-and-done,” he told the UConn Today website — in other words, one five-year grant would be the life span of the Alcohol Research Center. What would he have said in ’78 if someone told him the grant would be ongoing for four decades and the center would still exist in 2019?
“You’re absolutely out of your mind,” he told UConn Today. Such centers usually have a life cycle of 10-15 years, officials say.
The grant trail is as follows: The National Institutes of Health (NIH), an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), has a subagency called the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), “the lead federal agency for research on alcohol and health and the largest funder of alcohol research in the world,” per the NIH website.
Reduced to organizational alphabet soup, the grant technically is traced to HHS, moves to NIH, continues through NIAAA, and ends up with ARC — UConn’s Alcohol Research Center. Simple, right?
“The center has made a number of major contributions to our understanding, identification and treatment of alcoholism,” says Hesselbrock, who has received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Research Society on Alcoholism. “One area of significant achievement is the contribution to clinical care — identifying new medications such as naltrexone and acamprosate, and improved behavioral interventions: brief interventions, cognitive behavioral interventions, improved 12-step interventions.”
Babor, a professor of community medicine and public health at UConn’s School of Medicine, began his tenure at the Alcohol Research Center in 1982 … the same year he moved to Canton.
“Being able to conduct productive research on such an important public health problem is tremendously fulfilling.” — Dr. Victor Hesselbrock
Born in New York City, Babor says the most fulfilling aspect of his work is “the pursuit of knowledge about addiction using the scientific method in a work environment that values research as a critical need for the improvement of public health.”
Babor, who turns 75 on Sept. 12, identifies the center’s most essential accomplishment as “programmatic research on the genetic, behavioral and social determinants of alcohol dependence, and the effectiveness of behavioral and pharmacological treatments on recovery.”
Covault, 64, is the medical director of UConn Health’s Outpatient Psychiatry Clinic and the principal investigator for an Alcohol Research Center project that is examining novel medication for treatment of alcohol use disorder. He expects a new study to begin enrolling subjects in October.
The most fulfilling part of his work? “Meeting with patients and working with our clinical research team to help patients reduce or stop drinking,” he says.
Born and raised in Iowa, Covault moved to Simsbury in 2009. He says the center’s most notable achievement is its “history of involvement in development of medication and psychotherapy treatments for alcohol use problems, including naltrexone and topiramate, which are [now] among the most recommended medical treatments.”
Tennen declined to be interviewed.
The center’s other major contributions, Hesselbrock says, include a greater understanding of alcoholism across the life span — “including identifying the initiation and development of drinking behavior, its genetic bases, improving diagnostic procedures and criteria, and understanding the different consequences of heavy drinking at different developmental stages.”
To get an up-close view of the intriguing history of the genetics of alcoholism, you merely need to hold a mirror up to UConn’s Alcohol Research Center.
“When we started … we weren’t so sure there were genes for alcoholism,” Hesselbrock told UConn Today. “We were absolutely wrong. We started off doing an early DNA profiling technique, which is something high school kids do now, but it was highly technical in 1988. Now we’re doing whole genome sequencing.”
Covault observes that the genetics of alcoholism is more complex than originally imagined: “What’s been learned is there are no major-effect genes for alcoholism — or depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia,” Covault told UConn Today. “In all these diseases, the genetic contribution results from many genes, each making a small contribution to the individual’s risk.”
Hesselbrock notes that the recurring grants have made it possible to exceed the initial scope of the project, telling UConn Today, “We started taking blood so we could take DNA. … When we started off, we were going to do 600 patients and their families. We now have 2,300 family pedigrees containing over 17,500 people. We’re now able to study four generations of affected families.”
As for Hesselbrock’s closest family, his wife was foundational in the early days of the Alcohol Research Center. Dr. Michie Hesselbrock was recruited together with her husband to join the center in 1978. They worked side by side, building the program from the ground up, until she left UConn in 1985 for Southern Connecticut State University’s School of Social Work. After five years at SCSU, she returned to UConn — taking a position at the School of Social Work, where she developed and directed the Ph.D. program. She retired in 2007.
“Michie has been an important collaborator of mine and contributor to my work and the work of the center since we first came to UConn,” Victor Hesselbrock says. “Since leaving the Alcohol Research Center in 1985, she has maintained a collaboration with the ARC and continued with the ARC, mentoring students, publishing papers, and presenting her work at national and international conferences.”
His own prominence in alcohol research is evident: Hesselbrock has been a member of more than two dozen committees and other organizations that are national or international in scope, including at least five times in a chairman’s role. And his scientific renown took root in what is perhaps an unlikely place: small-town America.
“I love being in a small town. I love a small-town community. You get to know people by name.” — Dr. Victor Hesselbrock
Born and raised in Ohio, he spent his childhood in Collinsville. Yes, you read that correctly: Collinsville … in Ohio, not the Collinsville that is the thriving hub of Canton, Connecticut.
In Hesselbrock’s early teens, his family moved to Cleburne, Texas, a small town less than two hours south of a tiny town called Collinsville. Later, he lived in the vicinity of Collinsville, Illinois.
“I’ve never left Collinsville,” says Hesselbrock with a smile.
By the way, his younger brother David also served during the Vietnam War — as a cryptographer in Ethiopia in 1969-70, supporting the war effort via encrypted communications.
“He had a top-secret clearance,” Victor Hesselbrock says. “He never could tell me what he did support.”
Hesselbrock’s favorite spots in Canton include the Farmington River Trail and Canton Land Trust properties. Regarding restaurants, he observes, “For a small town, Canton has a nice variety of places to eat, such as the Crown & Hammer and Saybrook Fish House … Canton is a wonderful place to live.”
“I love being in a small town,” Hesselbrock affirms. “I love a small-town community. You get to know people by name. … I have a new neighbor whose truck had a flat tire and he was looking for a trolley jack. I said, ‘I happen to have a trolley jack.’”
Exactly the neighborly welcome you'd expect in small-town America.
Meanwhile, back at the UConn ranch, the NIAAA grant provides for an intricate and far-reaching operation — funding research staff, equipment, pilot studies (of 6-12 months and five years), infrastructure for others’ alcohol work, consultant speakers, an administrator whose expertise is applying for additional grants, and training for graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, residents and more. UConn Health pitches in by providing labs and offices.
Given the stats cited earlier, how many Alcohol Research Center staff members in the 40-year history of the program would you expect to be affected directly by alcoholism? Quite a few, right?
In a plot twist that defies the odds, only one center staff member — in the early years — was a recovering alcoholic, according to Hesselbrock. No other staff member since, he says, has been directly affected by alcoholism, either personally or via an immediate family member. Such a remarkable statistic is fitting for a remarkable program that has done so much to help those who have been hit hard by alcoholism.
“I encourage people who struggle with alcohol to reach out and connect with programs that can help — to seek out treatment, whether inpatient or outpatient,” Hesselbrock says. “If folks reach out, they can get help.” +
• This article first appeared in the September 2019 issue of Today Magazine — both the print and digital editions
• Today Magazine is an award-winning, print-and-digital monthly publication that covers the heart of Connecticut's Farmington Valley
• Today Magazine editor-in-chief Bruce Deckert is a five-time SPJ award-winner • He was an ESPN.com editor for 17 years