John A. Ewing, 83, studied alcoholism

Staff WriterJune 7, 2006 

Dr. John A. Ewing, a psychiatrist who watched his patients struggle with alcohol, founded an institute in Chapel Hill in 1970 with the determination to study alcoholism as a disease, not a moral failing.

It started with less than $100,000 in state funding and nine rooms in an old dormitory. It is now the Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies, an institute that receives millions of dollars from the federal government to explore the causes, prevention and treatment of alcoholism.

Ewing died Saturday at age 83 at his home in Wilmington. Weeks earlier, the Scotland native had attended the 60th reunion celebration for his medical school class at the University of Edinburgh.

He came to the United States in 1951 to take a position as a senior doctor at the state psychiatric hospital in Butner. Once a week, he traveled to Chapel Hill to do alcohol research, and in 1953, he joined the faculty at UNC's medical school to teach psychiatry.

In the late 1960s, Ewing gained the support of two key legislators: Sam Johnson and Hargrove "Skipper" Bowles, the father of UNC President Erskine Bowles. They pushed a bill to create the alcohol studies center with a small state appropriation.

The center, established in 1970, was groundbreaking considering societal views on alcoholism.

"When I became interested in the field of alcoholism, the topic was something that was whispered about," Ewing said in 1995 at the time of the center's 25th anniversary. "It was recognized as a disgrace, and people were supposed to have more willpower, and they were not supposed to drink too much."

Along the way, Ewing created what became a well-known tool: the CAGE questionnaire. The test consisted of four questions to help identify alcoholics. It was translated and used worldwide.

Ian Ewing of Durham said his father wanted to do something to help patients who struggled with drug and alcohol dependency. "He just had so many patients who dealt with it, he became interested in seeking treatment and a cure," he said.

Ewing also recognized that a cure was decades, if not generations, away.

Dr. William Roper, chief executive of UNC Health Care, called Ewing "a giant in the fields of alcoholism and dependency research."

In addition to his son, survivors include his wife, Muriel, of Wilmington, and his daughter, Christine Obert of Lakewood, Colo.

Staff writer Jane Stancill can be reached at 956-2464 or

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