Beny Primm, 87; pioneer in drug abuse treatment

NEW YORK — 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 Oct. 16 in New Rochelle, N.Y. He was 87.

Dr. Primm was treating trauma cases at Harlem Hospital in the early 1960s when he became aware of the havoc drug addiction was causing.

“As an anesthesiologist, I saw young people in the ER, 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 Addiction Research and Treatment Corp., which opened a methadone clinic in the Fort Greene section of New York City’s 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.

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Dr. Primm saw his first AIDS case in 1983 when examining an addict at one of his treatment centers. As tests became available for HIV, 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 information campaigns aimed at high-risk populations.

“IV substance abusers multiply in greater numbers than gays,” he said 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 effect on minority communities.

Beny Jene Primm was born on May 21, 1928, in Williamson, W.V. His father and uncle owned a funeral home, and his mother taught in a one-room schoolhouse. Because of the family business, doctors often visited, and from early childhood he set his sights on entering the medical profession.


In 1941, the family moved to the Bronx, where he was an indifferent student. At West Virginia State University, a historically black institution near Charleston, he improved only slightly as a student but thrived in the ROTC. After graduating in 1950, he was assigned to the Army’s 82d 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. Having studied German in college, he enrolled in the Heidelberg University but, for financial reasons, left after a year.

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.

Because of his AIDS work, Dr. Primm was named to the Presidential Commission on the Human Immunodeficiency Virus Epidemic in 1987.

Under President George H.W. 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.