Newsletter Article

In Memoriam: G. Alan Marlatt

[This is based on and includes excerpts from an In Memoriam article appearing in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs in May 2011 written by his close colleagues. The complete version can be found here: ]

Photo:  Dr. G. Alan Marlatt
Photo:  G. Alan Marlatt

The Psychology Department, the University of Washington, and the entire field of addictive behavior research mourn the loss of G. Alan Marlatt, Ph.D., who passed away on March 14, 2011 from kidney failure due to melanoma. A truly creative, courageous, and groundbreaking scientist, he leaves behind an enormous legacy of contributions to the field of addiction research. Alan was born on November 26, 1941, in Vancouver, British Columbia. He received his bachelor’s degree in psychology with honors from the University of British Columbia in 1964 and his doctorate in clinical psychology from Indiana University, Bloomington, in 1968. He taught at the University of British Columbia and the University of Wisconsin before joining the Department of Psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1972. Alan founded the Addictive Behaviors Research Center within the Department of Psychology at the University of Washington in 1981, creating an atmosphere of excellence and a supportive environment within which numerous innovations in the prevention and treatment of addiction were born.

During his 42 years as a clinical and academic psychologist, Alan authored, co-authored, or edited 23 books, and more than 300 articles and book chapters on theoretical and methodological topics as well as empirical research results regarding the assessment, etiology, prevention, and treatment of addictive behaviors. Alan’s research had a major impact on understanding the interaction between thoughts, emotions, and situations as predictors of addictive behaviors. His brilliant, productive, and influential career changed how scholars, clinicians, policy makers, and members of the larger society think about alcohol consumption, the problems it causes, and what we can do about these problems at both the clinical and public health levels.

Alan’s research approaches were pioneering and established a precedent for much of the behavioral alcohol research that followed. For example, early in his career he created the Behavioral Alcohol Research Laboratory (BARLAB)—a simulated bar in the University of Washington Department of Psychology, complete with all the accoutrements of a local tavern in addition to two-way mirrors, hidden cameras, and microphones. He used the BARLAB to study the effects of “set” (expectations, thoughts, attitudes) and “setting” (environment, cues) on alcohol use.

Alan also brought a tremendous amount of compassion to his research and advocated for a pragmatic and humane approach to reducing the harms associated with addictive behaviors. For example, he recognized early on that requiring complete abstinence as the only treatment goal often deterred substance users from seeking treatment. Instead, he promoted alternative approaches designed to encourage behaviors that reduced harm and provide flexible options rather than insisting on immediate cessation of use. He has been recognized for profoundly changing attitudes about addiction and how to approach its treatment.

The Department will deeply miss Alan.