Sidney M. Wolfe, a physician and consumer advocate who for more than 40 years hounded the pharmaceutical industry and the Food and Drug Administration over high prices, dangerous side effects and overlooked health risks, bringing a new level of transparency and accountability to the world of care, died Monday at his home in Washington. He was 86 years old.
His wife, Suzanne Goldberg, said the cause was a brain tumor.
With consumer advocate Ralph Nader, Dr. Wolfe founded the Health Research Group in 1971, and over the next four decades he used it as the basis for his relentless campaigns on behalf of health care users. On his office door, on the seventh floor of a shabby building near Dupont Circle in Washington, he hung a sign reading “Populus iamdudum defutatus est” — Latin for roughly “The people have been screwed long enough.”
His strategy, built around what he calls “research-based advocacy,” was to flood the area with information: press releases, congressional testimony and media interviews. A visitor to his office invariably left with a stack of recently published reports from the Health Research Group.
Dr. Wolfe’s first effort, a few months before officially founding the group, was to write a letter with Mr. Nader to the FDA about the contamination of intravenous fluid bags made by Abbott Laboratories – and then to disclose the letter to the media. In two days, some two million bags had been recalled.
Case IV “led me to think that there were a lot of problems that had been well documented, but no one had done anything about them” he told the Washington Post in 1989.
Soon after their success with Abbott, Dr. Wolfe and Mr. Nader found themselves inundated with tips and leaks from doctors and researchers in government and industry. In response, they created the Health Research Group, an offshoot of Mr. Nader’s organization, Public Citizen.
During his long tenure with the group, Dr. Wolfe successfully had more than a dozen drugs removed from the market and warning labels placed on dozens more. He didn’t just stop at drugs: his targets included contact lenses, pacemakers, tampons, cigarettes and toothpaste, anything that might affect health and healthcare.
He wrote a monthly newsletter in which he included a regular column called “Outrage of the Month.” In 1980, he self-published a book titled “Worst Pills, Best Pills: A Consumer’s Guide to Avoiding Drug-Induced Death or Illness.” It became a New York Times bestseller and sold more than 2.2 million copies over several editions.
His critics – and they were legion – called Dr. Wolfe a “gadfly” and a “fanatic,” and even his admirers acknowledged that he could be demanding and impatient. For his 75th birthday, one of his daughters and a son-in-law gave him a doll, made in his image, with a button which, when pressed, said: “It’s a scandal!
He mocked the jabs but also insisted he had taken a more measured approach than his critics claimed. He didn’t seek emergency or life-saving drugs, like those for cancer or AIDS, he said, because he felt their benefits outweighed virtually any side effects. He also emphasized that most of what he published was not scandalous but informative – for example, a regular series in his newsletter on how to read a drug label.
But he has never apologized for taking a strong stance against the health care industry.
“Someone has to watch out for people who are being manipulated by hospitals, doctors, insurance companies and drug companies,” he told The Progressive magazine in 1993.
Sidney Manuel Wolfe was born June 12, 1937, in Cleveland, the son of Fred and Sophia (Marks) Wolfe. His mother was an English teacher and his father was an inspector for the United States Department of Labor.
His first career aspiration was chemical engineering, which he studied at Cornell University. But he decided to find a new path after spending a summer working in a hydrofluoric acid manufacturing plant, where regular contact with chemicals meant that “every day I came home with first-degree burns “. he told the Washington Post in 1978.
He transferred to Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve University), from which he graduated in 1959, and continued his medical studies. There, he studied under Dr. Benjamin Spock, a pediatrician and peace activist, and spent time working on drug overdose cases – two experiences that would shape his career.
After receiving his medical degree in 1965, Dr. Wolfe worked in the Public Health Service and then joined the National Institutes of Health, where he researched drug addiction. He also worked with the Medical Committee for Human Rights, a group of medical professionals active in the civil rights movement.
Late one night, I called a friend and fellow doctor to ask him to treat a sick woman associated with the Black Panthers.
“He said, ‘Get out of bed,'” physician Anthony Fauci, later director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recalled in a 1992 interview with The Wall Street Journal. Sidvintage.”
Dr. Wolfe’s first marriage, to Ava Albert, ended in divorce. He married Dr. Goldberg, a psychologist and artist, in 1978. With her, he is survived by four children from his first marriage, Hannah, Leah, Rachel and Sarah Wolfe; two stepsons, Nadav and Stefan Savio; five grandchildren; and his sister, Janet, also a psychologist.
Dr. Wolfe received a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as a “genius grant,” in 1990. From 2008 to 2012, he served on the Drug Safety and Risk Management Advisory Committee, part of the FDA. He retired from leadership of the health research group in 2013.
He remained active at Public Citizen, although he insisted that he had drastically reduced his time commitment, from 60 or more hours a week to just 40 to 45 hours.