Sidney Wolfe, Co-Founder of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, Dies at 86

Derick Alison
Derick Alison
6 Min Read

Sidney Wolfe, MD, co-founder of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group and a winner of a MacArthur Fellowship Award — also called a “genius grant” — died Monday, Public Citizen announced. He was 86 years old and had brain cancer.

“America has lost a towering public health leader and an unparalleled consumer champion,” Public Citizen president Robert Weissman said in a statement. “Public Citizen has lost one of our founders and I and many others have lost a great friend.”

Wolfe got his start in health advocacy in 1971. As he explained to MedPage Today in a 2013 video interview, he had just finished his residency and was doing hematology research at the NIH when he received a call from a fellow resident.

The physician was concerned that the FDA and CDC weren’t recalling contaminated intravenous fluids that had caused severe bacterial infections and dozens of deaths. Neither Wolfe nor his colleague considered the CDC recommendation to keep administering the fluids unless patients developed an infection to be correct.

After some research proving a direct link between the IV fluids and infections — and verifying with some hospitals that a recall wouldn’t cause a shortage — Wolfe sent the FDA a letter demanding that the agency get the manufacturer to recall the fluids, and went on a media campaign with the evidence.

Two days later, the fluids were recalled. The work was so fulfilling and satisfying that it made Wolfe shift career goals entirely. He had been on track to be an academic and an internist seeing patients, but instead, he and consumer advocate Ralph Nader formed the Health Research Group 8 months after the fluid recall.

During Wolfe’s more than 40 years at the helm of the organization, the group asked the FDA to ban 35 drugs — “not a whole lot,” he said in the interview. But the agency followed through on 25 of the group’s requests, about a 70% success rate. He was not without controversy, however; some called him a “thorn in the side of organized medicine,” and former President George W. Bush referred to him as a “gadfly” to the pharmaceutical industry. On the other hand, Wolfe served from 2008 to 2012 on the FDA’s Drug Safety and Risk Management Advisory Committee. He was also adjunct professor of internal medicine at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.

Asked what he was most proud of, he listed among his successes his warning about rofecoxib (Vioxx) years before it was taken off the market. The FDA also acted on Public Citizen’s request to ban valdecoxib (Bextra). Wolfe’s group got a warning against Reye’s syndrome put on the side of aspirin bottles, and got silicone breast implants restricted.

In 2013, Wolfe stepped down as the group’s president but continued on in the role of senior adviser. At the time, he said that although he considered himself to be in good health mentally and physically, he wanted to cut back to a 40- or 45-hour work week, something he hadn’t had in decades.

Wolfe’s accomplishments included a $320,000 MacArthur award, which he received in 1990. He used the money to buy a piano and to pay off his daughters’ educational debt. He also authored “Worst Pills, Best Pills,” a book that “alerts [readers] to the potential risks of hundreds of medications available today,” according to its official description; it sold more than 2.5 million copies and spawned a newsletter and a website.

“We know this: Sid saved the lives of tens and tens of thousands of people, almost none of whom will know the debt they owe to Sid,” Weissman said in a post on Public Citizen’s website. “There’s just no way to know about the drug that might have killed you but didn’t because it was pulled from the market or never approved – due to Sid’s work. Very few of the millions of people who benefited from safety warnings that Sid and his colleagues forced onto drugs will know why they were able to avoid serious health problems. The millions and millions of workers who avoided exposure to workplace toxins and hazards because of rules that Sid and colleagues forced into place will never know how Sid protected them from dangers and disease.”

Wolfe was born in 1937 in Cleveland, Ohio. He received his BS and MD degrees from Case Western Reserve University.

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    Joyce Frieden oversees MedPage Today’s Washington coverage, including stories about Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, healthcare trade associations, and federal agencies. She has 35 years of experience covering health policy. Follow

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