After her teenage son died of suicide, Joan Marie Mathews-Larson spent much of her life helping others battle addiction. She wrote two books on the subject and ran a Minneapolis recovery center for more than 40 years.
Mathews-Larson, of Arden Hills, died on Nov. 19 at age 90.
Larson was raised in Minneapolis and attended the Basilica Grade School and St. Margaret’s High School. After a year at the University of Minnesota, she decided to embrace her budding artistic side, transferring to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, where she planned to explore her interest in fashion and design.
Art, music and academics were important in her family — her father taught math and Latin — but after meeting her husband at MCAD, she dropped out and had three kids.
In 1970 her husband died unexpectedly, leaving her with no job and bills to pay. Her son, Mark Mathews, said that like her father she was a natural teacher and dove deeply into her own yoga practice, teaching classes in her basement, and then teaching at Metropolitan State University.
“She had a lot of energy and would really pursue what was meaningful to her,” said daughter Molly Mathews of Arden Hills. “She wasn’t afraid to go above and beyond and take risks; she would go after what she wanted and not back off.”
Five years after losing her husband, her teenage second son, Robby, died of suicide after going through a well-respected drug and alcohol treatment program. Distraught, and baffled that the treatment didn’t work, she started researching the underlying causes of addiction. Fueled by that grief, she delved into research that convinced her that conquering addiction isn’t about stifling emotional triggers or bolstering one’s weak willpower. She pursued a Ph.D. in human nutrition with a focus on alcoholism and wrote a dissertation focused on the biochemical connection to alcoholism and other addictions. She continued her study of orthomolecular medicine and began developing new strategies and protocols for treating addictions. She later wrote two books, including “Seven Weeks to Sobriety,” which was used as a textbook in nursing classes and as a manual for other treatment centers.
With the help of her second husband, businessman Ralph Larson, who died recently, she established what’s believed to be the first orthomolecular treatment center of its kind: the Health Recovery Center in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis, which embraces a psychobiological model for treating addictions and emotional disorders.
She made many television appearances and did many radio interviews, becoming a lecturer on the topic.
While focused on running the business, Mathews-Larson’s creative impulses never diminished — they just shifted to her appearance. Her children said that she dressed in bright colors and always had a flower or two in her hair.
“That artistic sense transferred to her fashion sense,” said son Mark Mathews of Minneapolis.
Later in her career, Mathews-Larson tried unsuccessfully to franchise the clinics but kept her focus on promoting ideas about recovery that weren’t always popular or embraced by the mainstream.
“She was outspoken and would often say things that were controversial,” said Mark Mathews. “She did many selfless things to make the world a better place.”
In addition to her son and daughter, Mathews-Larson is survived by sister Donna Wallander of Edina and two grandchildren. Services have been held.