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Dr. Barbara Herbert, public health ‘change-maker’ for the at-risk and marginalized, dies at 73

Dr. Barbara Herbert.Doug Bradshaw for the Massachusetts Medical Society

In a life of activism that began in the late 1960s when she drove Vietnam War draft resisters into Canada and helped women get safe abortions before Roe v. Wade, Dr. Barbara Herbert summed up her decision to become a physician with one word.

“Rage,” she exclaimed in a 2014 oral history interview for Smith College.

“I could not believe what was happening in the health care system,” she added. “I could not believe how women were treated, how people of color were treated.”

Dr. Herbert, whose medical advocacy ranged from helping found a pioneering lesbian health clinic in New York City to advocating for safe injection sites in Massachusetts for IV drug users, was 73 when she died from respiratory arrest and chronic asthma April 23 in her Cambridge home.


“She was to the end a change-maker,” said her wife, Jean Flatley McGuire, a professor of practice at Northeastern University’s Bouve College of Health Sciences who formerly was assistant secretary of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

“Barbara was tough; she was smart,” McGuire added. “She was inspiring at every level.”

Dr. Herbert spent her early years in Greater Boston finishing a Harvard University fellowship, and working at Boston City Hospital and with the Fenway Community Health Center. She specialized in emergency medicine and was a leader in domestic violence response.

More recently, she had served as medical director at the St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center addiction unit and at the Addiction Treatment Center of New England in Brighton. Four years ago, Dr. Herbert joined Column Health, and she testified before Congress and at the State House.

In the latter part of her career, she made considerable efforts to ensure that those caught up in substance abuse receive good medical care, which often was unavailable in the past for an at-risk population that many in society ignore or mock.


A former president of the Massachusetts Society of Addiction Medicine, which is the state chapter of the national society, she called in 2017 for Massachusetts to open clinics where drug users could inject while under medical supervision.

“It’s counterintuitive that you would let people do something that is illegal and dangerous in a setting that is safer,” she told The Boston Globe in 2017, amid an opioid crisis that the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated had resulted in nearly 500,000 overdose deaths from 1999 to 2019.

“But in fact, there’s good scientific and epidemiologic evidence that it saves lives,” Dr. Herbert said, “and we’re in such a terrible epidemic that anything that saves lives, we want to embrace.”

In a resolution adopted after her death, the Massachusetts Medical Society House of Delegates called Dr. Herbert “a courageous champion of the vulnerable.”

In particular, the resolution noted that she “had a passion for treating new mothers with substance abuse disorder and was an outspoken advocate for the reduction of stigma associated with mental illness.”

With the state medical society, her work included serving on several committees, including those that focused on violence intervention and prevention, LGBTQ issues, global health, and the Task Force on Access to Medical Care.

“Dr. Herbert was an expert in the field of emergency medicine and addiction medicine with over 30 years of caring for patients, teaching, and mentoring physicians,” the resolution said, adding that she “was a great friend, colleague, and mentor.”


Her extensive work with patients and training new physicians was only part of Dr. Herbert’s involvement. She also found time to work with other activists to challenge the language used — words such as junkie or addict — to disparage those for whom drug use is a lifelong medical condition.

“The biggest thing we trade in is hope,” she told the Globe in 2016. “Our biggest enemy is hopelessness. That’s why I think language matters a lot.”

The older of two sisters, Barbara Arnold was born on Aug. 17, 1948, and grew up in Towson, Md.

In a Documenting Lesbian Lives Oral History Project interview at Smith College, conducted by Carmen Pullella, Dr. Herbert recalled that she wasn’t close to her parents. Her mother, Louise Powell Arnold, struggled with mental illness, and Dr. Herbert’s burgeoning left-wing politics as a teenager led to “terrible, terrible fights” with her father, William Arnold, an engineer.

Upon finishing high school, Dr. Herbert went to Wellesley College and left after little more than a year.

Despite not finishing a bachelor’s degree, she recalled that she “learned to read critically” at Wellesley “and to pick things to read that would move the way I thought forward, and that’s invaluable.”

She then spent time as an antiwar activist in South Carolina, including as part of a Students for a Democratic Society chapter. She helped some draftees “look crazy” to avoid being sent to Vietnam, and drove others across the border into Canada.


During some parts of her activism, “people actually shot at me,” she said. “I don’t care to be shot at. A few times in my life that’s happened.”

Her marriage at that time, to a conscientious objector, ended in divorce and she kept Herbert as a last name.

When she and others launched an effort to help women in conservative South Carolina travel north for safe abortions, “we thought we’d get 20 people,” but ended up assisting about 250, she recalled.

“People showed up telling stories about incest, moms saying they would do anything to be able to get abortions for their children,” she said in the oral history. “It was extraordinary.”

Moving to New York City, she came out as a lesbian, worked at an underground newspaper, and cofounded the St. Mark’s Women’s Health Collective in the mid-1970s.

“We didn’t use the word lesbian in our name because we didn’t want to exclude anyone who couldn’t afford to be out,” she wrote, “and many people at that time couldn’t.”

Based on her life experience, she was accepted at what is now the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University on Long Island, N.Y., from which she graduated with a medical degree.

Further medical training brought Dr. Herbert to Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston.

Dr. Herbert and McGuire were a couple for many years before they were the 10th couple to marry, in May 2004, after same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts.


“She was tough, she was demanding, she was a visionary, she was political. She went through all those movement activities with a fierce sense of justice,” McGuire said.

“And she came in with 10 footnotes for everything,” McGuire added, laughing. “It could be difficult to argue with her.”

In addition to McGuire, Dr. Herbert leaves a daughter, Lainey Polikoff of San Diego; two stepchildren, Daniel McGuire of Medford and Megan McGuire of New York City and Melbourne; a sister, Beth Arnold of Austin, Texas; and a grandson.

A celebration of Dr. Herbert’s life and work will be announced.

Though her health had been failing for months, she continued her advocacy for the marginalized into her final days.

As her physical abilities waned, Dr. Herbert kept finding ways to remain vital: speaking with patients by phone, participating in Zoom meetings, even when doing so required assistance from others.

“She was amazing in still being her fierce self and accepting help,” McGuire said. “It was wonderful to still be surprised in the last days of her life. I would wish that for everybody.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at