Sidney M. Wolfe, scourge of the pharmaceutical industry, dies at 86

Sidney M. Wolfe, a physician and consumer advocate who for more than 40 years harassed the pharmaceutical industry and the Food and Drug Administration over high prices, dangerous side effects, and overlooked health dangers, bringing a new level of transparency and accountability to the world of healthcare, died Monday at his home in Washington. He was 86 years old.

His wife, Suzanne Goldberg, said the cause was a brain tumor.

Along with consumer advocate Ralph Nader, Dr. Wolfe founded the Health Research Group in 1971 and for the next four decades used it as the basis for his tireless campaigns on behalf of healthcare consumers. On the door of his office, on the seventh floor of a dingy building near Dupont Circle in Washington, he hung a sign that read “Populus iamdudum defutatus est” (which in Latin means, roughly, “People are already quite “fucked”).

His strategy, built around what he called “research-based advocacy,” was to flood the area with information: press releases, congressional testimony, and media interviews. A visitor to his office invariably emerged with a stack of reports recently published by 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 contamination in intravenous fluid bags manufactured by Abbott Laboratories, and then publish the letter in the media Communication. In two days, about two million bags had been withdrawn from the market.

Case IV “led me to think that there were many problems that had been well documented, but no one had done anything about them.” he told the Washington Post in 1989.

Shortly after their success with Abbott, Dr. Wolfe and Mr. Nader found themselves inundated with advice and leaks from doctors and researchers in government and industry. In response, they created the Health Research Group, a branch of Mr. Nader’s organization, Public Citizen.

During his long tenure with the group, Dr. Wolfe managed to have more than a dozen drugs removed from the market and warning labels placed on dozens of others. He took on more than just drugs: his targets included contact lenses, pacemakers, tampons, cigarettes and toothpaste – anything that could affect health and healthcare.

He wrote a monthly newsletter in which he included a regular column called “Outrage of the Month.” In 1980, she self-published a book, “Worse Pills, Better Pills: A Consumer’s Guide to Avoiding Drug-Induced Death or Illness.” It became a New York Times bestseller and has sold more than 2.2 million copies in multiple 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 that when pressed said: “This is outrageous!”

He laughed off the jabs but also insisted he took a more measured approach than his critics said. He did not seek emergency or life-saving medications, such as those directed against cancer or AIDS, he said, because he felt their benefits outweighed virtually any side effects. He also noted that most of what he posted was not outrage but information; for example, a regular series in his newsletter on how to read a medication label.

But he never apologized for taking a tough stance against the health care industry.

“Someone has to take care of the people who are being manipulated by the hospitals, the doctors, the insurance companies and the pharmaceutical companies,” he told The Progressive magazine in 1993.

Sidney Manuel Wolfe was born June 12, 1937 in Cleveland, 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 professional 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 factory producing hydrofluoric acid, where regular contact with chemicals meant he “came home every day 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 with Dr. Benjamin Spock, a pediatrician and peace activist, and spent time working with 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 moved to the National Institutes of Health, where he researched addiction. He also worked with the Medical Committee for Human Rights, a group of health professionals active in the civil rights movement.

Late one night, he called a friend and fellow doctor to ask him to care for a sick woman associated with the Black Panthers.

“He told me, ‘Get your butt out of bed,’” recalled physician Anthony Fauci, later director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in a 1992 interview with The Wall Street Journal. “That’s classic Sid.”

Dr. Wolfe’s first marriage, to Ava Albert, ended in divorce. He married Dr. Goldberg, a psychologist and artist, in 1978. Along with her, he is survived by four children from her 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 directing the Health Research Group in 2013.

He remained active in Public Citizen, although he insisted that he had significantly reduced his time commitment, from 60 or more hours a week to just 40 or 45.