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Remembering Sidney M. Wolfe, M.D, 1937-2024

Health Letter, February 2024

By Robert Steinbrook, M.D.
Director, Public Citizen's Health Research Group

As many readers know, Sidney M. Wolfe, M.D, a founder of the Health Research Group and an iconic and inspirational champion of public health, died in January 2024 at age 86. When I became the director in 2023, Sid was working as the senior adviser to the Health Research Group, having reduced his hours to 45 or so a week. He was as vigorous and passionate as ever, and I was looking forward to working with him for many years. Tragically, weeks after I began work, Sid was diagnosed with the brain tumor that took his life.

In 1971, the same year that Public Citizen was launched, Sid founded the Health Research Group with Ralph Nader. In a letter in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), Wolfe and Nader called “attention to the formation of a new Health Research Group, a Washington-based organization doing consumer-oriented studies in three major areas: occupational health and safety; drug and product safety (FDA); and the health-care delivery system.” Sid’s unrelenting focus on drug and medical-device safety and his pioneering approach of research-based advocacy are the through lines that connect the early days of the Health Research Group with our team today.

Subsequently, Sid founded the Health Research Group’s two monthly publications, Health Letter in 1985 and Worst Pills, Best Pills News in 1995, and our website, WorstPills.org. A signature feature of the Health Letter is the “Outrage of the Month” column, which Sid originated and often wrote. Sid found many aspects of health care in the United States outrageous, and with good reason. For his 75th birthday, as the New York Times reported, “one of his daughters and a son-in-law gave him a doll, made to look like him, with a button that when pressed said, “It’s an outrage!””

I first met Sid in 1985, when I reported for the Los Angeles Times on safety problems with a mechanical heart value that was later withdrawn from the market. Subsequently, our paths crossed many times. We became friends and he often provided me with wise advice.

In 1997, NEJM, where I was an editor, published one of his most important articles, about unethical placebo-controlled trials of interventions to reduce perinatal transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Writing with Dr. Peter Lurie, Sid called attention to the tragic use of placebo-controlled trials when the medication zidovudine was known to be effective at preventing transmission, leading to “hundreds of infants who have needlessly contracted HIV infection” in these studies. In 2022, JAMA Internal Medicine, where I worked at the time, published his commentary on “curbing the perverse systemic financial incentives that contribute to the high prices of prescription drugs.” The commentary turned out to be the last of his many noteworthy articles in medical journals.

Sid headed the Health Research Group from 1971 to 2013. He was a unique individual. No one can replace Sid, but those of us who have the privilege and responsibility of working at the Health Research Group in its 53rd year are inspired every day by his vision, passion and integrity, and his fundamental commitment to doing what’s right for consumers and patients.