Few people in American history have saved more lives than Dr. Sidney Wolfe. Dr. Wolfe and his small staff at the Health Research Group of Public Citizen have taken on Big Pharma and the FDA to pull over two dozen dangerous drugs and countless hazardous medical devices off the market, not to mention putting numerous incompetent doctors out of business. Over the course of his storied career, Sid worked relentlessly for workplace safety and with his best-selling book and subsequent newsletter Worst Pills/Best Pills, provided the American people with the most reliable, up-to-date, evidence-based, easy-to-read guide to pharmaceuticals ever compiled. Today we pay tribute to the man who invented the concept of the “public interest doctor.”
Dr. Steffie Woolhandler is a co-founder of Physicians for a National Health Program, which is a non-profit research and education organization that advocates for single-payer national health insurance. Dr. Woolhandler is a practicing primary care physician, distinguished professor of public health and health policy in the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Public Health, an adjunct professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and lecturer in medicine at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Woolhandler has authored more than 150 journal articles, reviews, chapters, and books on health policy.
Dr. David Himmelstein is a co-founder of Physicians for a National Health Program. Dr. Himmelstein is a practicing primary care physician, distinguished professor of public health at the City University of New York, a lecturer at Harvard Medical School, and a His more than 150 peer reviewed studies include widely-cited articles appearing in the New England Journal, Annals of Internal Medicine, JAMA, Health Affairs and the American Journal of Public Health on the excess death rate among the uninsured, medical bankruptcy, health care administrative costs, insurance firms’ misbehaviors, and dangerous medications.
For over 50 years, Dr. Sidney Wolfe—who directed Public Citizen's Health Research Group—has been what I would call the doctor's doctor. Stressing the prevention of trauma and sickness, stressing accountability for gouging and unsafe practices by the drug companies, and pushing for effective regulation by the Food and Drug Administration and the Occupational Safety and Health Agency.
I think that Dr. Sid Wolfe had that emotional intelligence that went with his cognitive intelligence, which makes all the difference in terms of whether someone just knows something and bewails it, or someone just knows something and connects it to action that saves people's lives and prevents injuries.
Dr. Sid Wolfe was insistent that those who sell drugs and profit from drugs have to prove that the drug is actually safe, that the harms do not outweigh the benefits. And for many, many drugs on the market in the United States, Sid and others found out that the harms were much greater than the benefits. In identifying literally dozens of drugs that were unsafe, that should not be used, Sid has saved hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of lives of Americans who were threatened by unsafe drugs.
Dr. Steffie Woolhandler
Dr. Sid Wolfe was meticulous about the truth. Sid insisted that you couldn't overstate what you didn't know, that the most important responsibility of doctors was to be honest with the patients, with the public, with the government about what we know and what we don't know—and often what we don't know is critically important. He never stretched the truth. That was important, not just because others were watching and trying to find flaws in what he did, but it was inherent in Sid's character that he cared about telling the truth and about doing what was right.
Dr. David Himmelstein
Robert Weissman is a staunch public interest advocate and activist, as well as an expert on a wide variety of issues ranging from corporate accountability and government transparency to trade and globalization, to economic and regulatory policy. As the President of Public Citizen, Weissman has spearheaded the effort to loosen the chokehold corporations and the wealthy have over our democracy.
Outrage may have been Sid's catchphrase, because he saw so much outrageousness in the health field. Precisely because he knew that things were being put on the market that shouldn't be, or services were being withheld from people that shouldn't be— not because of any lack of information, but because of the improper influence and political power and economic power of Big Pharma and the for-profit health insurance industry. And he was outraged about that. Because he understood it rightfully as a matter of life and death.
Dr. Peter Lurie is President and Executive Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest—an independent, science-based consumer advocacy organization that advocates for a safer, healthier food system. The CSPI also publishes NutritionAction, a healthy-living guide for consumers. Dr. Lurie previously worked with the Food and Drug Administration and Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, where he co-authored their Worst Pills, Best Pills consumer guide to medications.’
Dr. Sid Wolfe was the person who really held [the FDA’s] feet to the fire and held us— or even me, when I was there—accountable. He was the person who raised the impertinent questions. He was the person who asked why you couldn't do more, or he was the person who asked why you did what you had done. All of those were appropriate to do. And all of those challenged the agency in ways that I think were healthy, even if not always welcomed by the agency.
Dr. Peter Lurie
I didn't think, personally, that you could actually win in this life. What I thought that I would do was tilt at windmills for the rest of my life, fight the good fight, maybe be an honorable person, maybe my kids would appreciate it. That's all I really thought would happen. But what Dr. Sid Wolfe showed me was that if you picked the right project, if you picked the project that was the right size, that involved a question that was actually being posed to a regulatory agency… If you picked that right-sized project and you brought the right data to bear, you actually could win. You could get that warning on the box. And if you won the first time, that told you that you could win a second and a third and a fourth time. And that is what keeps you going.
Dr. Peter Lurie
To hear Sid Wolfe talk about his career and his work in his own words, click here
For Ralph’s formal written tribute to Sid click here
For Rob Weissman’s formal tribute to Sid, click here
Former CBS News reporter Sharyl Attkisson remembers Sid
Statement by Joan Claybrook
(Joan Claybrook, Sid Wolfe, and Ralph along with Alan Morrison were co-founders of Public Citizen)
Sid Wolfe invented a new profession: doctors representing citizens on health issues from drug safety, occupational safety, oversight of drug and other companies, evaluation of doctors, publication of detailed health and drug information for citizens to use seeking health care, and more. He boldly challenged drug and other companies directly in technical proceedings before government agencies and Congress. He learned how to frame his messages for TV so he could speak directly to consumers. The sale of his Worst Pills Best Pills publications reached millions and earned many millions of much needed income for Public Citizen. He was rigorous with the facts and despite his high-profile debates, never made a factual mistake over 50 years. He was fierce with his adversaries and gentle and caring with his patients.