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Public Citizen Mourns Passing of Dr. Sidney Wolfe, A Towering Public Health Leader

Statement from Robert Weissman, President, Public Citizen

Washington, D.C. — “America has lost a towering public health leader and an unparalleled consumer champion. Public Citizen has lost one of our founders and I and many others have lost a great friend. My dear friend Sid Wolfe passed away earlier today. He was 86 years old.

“Dr. Sidney Wolfe founded the Health Research Group in 1971 with Ralph Nader, part of the enterprise that launched as Public Citizen that same year. Sid invented a new approach of ‘research-based advocacy’ to get dangerous drugs and devices off the market, win new protections for worker health and safety, address doctor misconduct, challenge the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to do its job, and hold pharmaceutical companies accountable.

“Sid was brilliant (he won a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant) and fearless in his advocacy. But what was most singular about him professionally was his passion for advancing health justice. There was a distinctive fierceness and fury to his work. Everyone who knew or even encountered Sid – allies and adversaries alike – experienced his intensity.

“Sid’s body of work and his achievements – accomplished in partnership with amazing colleagues in Health Research Group, other Public Citizen staff and allies outside the organization – are jaw-dropping. Under Sid’s guidance, Public Citizen:

  • Helped to force 28 dangerous medications off the market, limiting the use of 10 more and adding strong warnings to dozens of others.
  • Pushed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to set more than a dozen worker-protective health standards.
  • Testified before hundreds of FDA advisory committees urging against approval of dangerous drugs and devices, and for limited use or strong warning labels of others, with substantial influence over countless decisions. He helped prevent many dangerous products from ever making it to market.
  • Won a ban of Red Dye No. 2, obtained warning labels about Reye’s syndrome on the side of aspirin bottles, and helped impose restrictions on silicone breast implants.
  • Sold 2.5 million copies of Worst Pills, Best Pills.
  • Documented weakening standards at the FDA following passage of the first Prescription Drug User Fee Act, which made drug companies a major revenue source for FDA.
  • Won earlier public access to safety and efficacy information for products being considered for approval by the FDA, enabling more effective advocacy by consumer advocates.
  • Advocated for decades against drug company marketing of dangerous opioids and demanded accountability for the drug companies and the corporate CEOs who fueled the deadly opioid addiction epidemic.

“That mind-blowing list is very abbreviated. Sid and colleagues also did vital and path-breaking research and advocacy on doctor discipline, mental health, tobacco, pharmaceutical marketing, drug company payments to doctors, medical devices, health insurance and the imperative of Medicare for All, unnecessary Cesarean sections, unregulated supplements, medical resident work hours, and more.

“Sid helped build Public Citizen into the vital and durable institution it is today. He made a name for the organization by making a difference. He inspired legions of medical students and made Public Citizen a name admired in the public health community – and feared by Big Pharma. He reached millions of consumers with his health information and helped make Public Citizen into a leading consumer rights organization.

“For half a century, Sid taught so much to all of us at Public Citizen, myself very much included: How to be strategically creative and innovative; how to translate expertise into policy talk and, even more importantly, public messaging; how to use the media to disseminate information and demand change; how to do research and maintain standards of excellence; the need to insist on accountability; how to operate with integrity and fearlessness; the power of persistence and never giving up; how to stay motivated for the long haul; why passion makes a difference; and never to accept injustice.

“As we remember him, 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. 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.

“Public Citizen will miss the one-of-a-kind Dr. Sidney Wolfe, his fire and passion, brilliance and integrity, and determination and love.”

Read Weissman’s full remembrance here