In Memoriam: Wallace Sampson, MD

I have some sad news for my readers today. It’s even sadder given that it’s only been two and a half weeks since I last had to mourn the passing of one of our own, a champion of science-based medicine, a regular commenter of five years, lilady. Unfortunately, this time around, it is my sad duty to inform you that Dr. Wallace Sampson has passed away at the age of 85. I knew about it late last week, but I wanted to wait until official obituaries were published, such as this one in the Mercury News.

I first encountered Wally (as his friends called him) through his writings deconstructing various forms of quackery on websites like Quackwatch and warning how unscientific medicine was worming its way into medical academia. Indeed, his 2003 article on the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, now known as the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, was one of the earliest articles I read that convinced me that this sham of an abomination of a waste of taxpayer dollars must be defunded. It is a classic that applies today every bit as much as it did 12 years ago. It was something that I had a hard time believing at first, but his writings and warnings both alarmed and educated me. They were a major influence on my development as a skeptic. Later, when my not-so-super-secret other blog was formed, I found myself having the opportunity to work with Wally as one of the founding bloggers there. Although he had a bit of difficulty adjusting to the style and culture of blogging, I did my best to help teach him the ropes. In turn, he served as the voice of experience, the man with the in-depth personal knowledge of history that we needed. Even though it’s true that we butted heads on a couple of occasions, I never doubted his dedication to science-based medicine. Unfortunately, after a couple of years, Wally had problems with his health and keeping up with a weekly publishing schedule; so unfortunately he could no longer provide regular material.

Wally Sampson was an inspiration whose efforts predated mine by decades. He made his name in the anti-quackery movement back in the 1970s, when I was a teenager. Long before his tenure at Science-Based Medicine, he was the founding editor of the peer-reviewed journal Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine and a founding member of the Bay Area Skeptics. He edited a book, Science Meets Alternative Medicine: What the Evidence Says about Unconventional Treatments. What’s little known about him is that he was one of the earliest skeptics involved in showing that laetrile was ineffective, even testifying in front of the FDA, and he stated that there is no dichotomy between “Eastern” and “Western” medicine long before I ever started saying it. There’s even a PBS special, A Day with Wally Sampson, where he discussed alternative medicine.

Sadly, Wally spent the last three months of his life in the hospital after complications from heart surgery. I learned from one of his family members that eventually after his long hospital course he realized that he wasn’t getting better and would probably never leave the hospital; so he asked for palliative care only and died on Memorial Day. Truly, a giant of medical skepticism has left us. We will not soon see his like again. The best I or anyone else can do is to try to carry on and hope that we can accomplish in the time we have left half of what he did.