Dr. Alice Tobler, 98, state official, influential mental health reformer

August 12, 2004|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Dr. Alice Tobler, a retired top state mental health official who wrote an influential 1960s report advocating reforms in her field, died of congestive heart failure Friday at the Broadmead retirement community in Cockeysville. She was 98 and formerly lived in Guilford.

In October 1963, following an initiative of President John F. Kennedy about mental illness and mental retardation, she was named director of Maryland Mental Health Planning. In this capacity she pushed to release the mentally ill from poorly equipped state hospitals while suggesting that patients be treated in community clinics.

Born Alice Berg in Berlin, Germany, where she received her early education, she left the country because of anti-Semitism. She earned her medical degree in Geneva in 1937. Her early medical work was in the treatment of tuberculosis.

"She was devoted to the culture of Germany but not to its politics," said Helen Mary Overstreet, a friend for 22 years. "She was very much a Democrat who had a keen interest in U.S. politics. She was also concerned about what was happening in Israel, on both sides."

In 1938, Dr. Tobler sailed to New York, where she had relatives and learned English by listening to radio soap operas. About two years later she moved to Baltimore, where she earned a master's degree in public health from what is now the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She taught there for many years, as well as at the Johns Hopkins Medical School.

She became a county health officer, first in Anne Arundel County and later in Calvert County, where she worked with patients suffering from infectious diseases, among other conditions.

After studying at Columbia University's Psychiatric Institute, she returned to the state health department.

Her study of state mental hospitals and clinics, "The Maryland State Comprehensive Plan for Community Mental Heath Services," which became known as the Tobler Report, received considerable attention when released in late 1965. "The Tobler Report minces no words in describing the inadequacy of the state's present program," a November 1965 editorial in the News American said.

This report led to the creation of the Maryland Community Mental Health Services Act, signed by Gov. J. Millard Tawes in 1966. "It is the hope ... we may be on the verge of moving away from the treatment of large numbers of mentally ill persons in large hospitals, removed from the community, their family and their friends," Tawes said at a signing ceremony.

"Everybody knew what should be done," she said in a Maryland Historical Society Magazine article published four years ago. "It all had to do with money and power, and very little to do with anything else."

Dr. Tobler became director of planning and community mental health at the Department of Mental Hygiene and years later was named acting commissioner of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene for a period before her 1975 retirement. She then became a consultant to the Baltimore City Commission on Aging.

After moving to Broadmead in 1979, she joined its health, food and history committees. She was interested in music and theater and played Scrabble, even when her eyesight failed and she memorized the tiles on the board.

"She was generous and wise, an understanding person," her friend, Mrs. Overstreet, said. "She was an excellent conversationalist and was very precise in terms of language."

Her marriages to Karl Tobler and Herbert Lennhoff ended in divorce.

No service is planned.

Dr. Tobler is survived by cousins.

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