Wally Sampson, MD March 29, 1930 – May 25, 2015

Wally Sampson, MD
March 29, 1930 – May 25, 2015

I’m sad to report that Dr. Wallace (Wally) Sampson, one of the original authors at Science-Based Medicine, passed away on May 25th at the age of 85. Wally was a valued member of the SBM community, a mentor to many of us, and a tireless crusader against health fraud and pseudoscience in medicine. He carried the banner of defending science and reason within medicine for a generation, and his is one of the giant shoulders on which SBM currently rests. His contributions to this website can be found here.

Wally was fighting against health fraud back when it was still called health fraud, rather than “alternative medicine” or whatever the latest marketing term they have adopted is. I would often go to him for perspective on the long range trends in our struggle to promote science in medicine. He had put in the decades of service necessary to have such perspective.

I personally owe Wally a great deal for my own career battling medical pseudoscience. Wally was keen to identify and nurture new people interested in promoting science in medicine. As a much younger skeptic, prior to social media, when I was only running a new and obscure local skeptic group, Wally invited me to speak at conferences, and eventually to be one of the assistant editors for The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, a print journal of which he was the first editor (available online here). Such nurturing was not common in my experience. He gave me the experience and platform upon which I eventually built Science-Based Medicine.

Other authors and editors at SBM have a similar story to tell. From Harriet Hall:

I never really got to know Wally Sampson very well, but he changed my life. He was on the faculty of the annual Skeptic’s Toolbox workshop from 1998 to 2008 and I first met him when I attended the Toolbox in 2002. At the time, I knew next to nothing about alternative medicine or about how to critique a scientific study. As part of his presentation, Wally showed a video of the Scientific American Frontiers episode on chiropractic where Alan Alda said that chiropractic neck manipulation was associated with a significant percentage of strokes. I questioned that, and when I got home I did my own research and determined that the claim was true. In the process, I stumbled upon a lot of other things about chiropractic that intrigued me enough to make me read everything I could find on chiropractic, both pro and con. One thing led to another; you might say chiropractic was my gateway drug to critiquing alternative medicine.

Thanks to the Toolbox encounter, when I came across a really stupid pseudoscientific study that was being used to promote “Vitamin O,” I felt comfortable enough with Wally to complain to him about it via e-mail. He replied, “You know, no-one takes studies like that seriously enough to critique them. Why don’t you write up a formal critique and we’ll publish it in The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine.” I protested that I wouldn’t know how to do that; but he insisted, saying he was confident that I could do it and he would help with editing. I wrote it and he published it. I chafed at the constraints of writing formally for a scientific journal, so I wrote another, irreverent version of my findings and submitted it to Skeptical Inquirer as “Oxygen Is Good, Even When It’s Not There.”

And my career as a writer was launched. As I continued to write, Wally continued to provide encouragement, praise, and support. His e-mails validated my work and kept me going. Over the years, a pattern developed. At the Toolbox or in an e-mail, Wally would say something that would impress me as being a bit over the top. I would question whether it was supported by reliable evidence and whether it was really as bad as he said. And I would invariably find that it was well supported and was even worse than he said. I developed a high respect for his judgment.

When Wally retired from the Toolbox in 2008, I was chosen to replace him. I didn’t think that I could hope to fill his shoes, but by then I had some reasonably adequate shoes of my own.

When Steve Novella invited me to be one of the five original contributors to Science-Based Medicine, I felt honored to be included in the same group with Wally. Wally was our elder statesman, the corporate memory of medical skepticism who could tell us about people and events from before our time. He was the voice of experience and wisdom.

I wish I could have gotten to know him better. He was kind, gentle, grandfatherly, professorial, approachable, modest, and a true gentleman. My daughter attended the Toolbox with me when she was a teenager, and she was quite fond of Wally. When we chanced to see him being interviewed on television, she would say, “That’s Grandpa Wally!”

Wallace Sampson was my mentor. He was responsible for launching my writing career and for making me who I am today. He is gone, but his work in science and skepticism will never be forgotten. Thank you, Wally. Requiescat in pace.

From David Gorski:

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 (NCCAM), now known as the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), 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.

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 too brief 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.

It is an understatement to say that Wally Sampson, his gentle demeanor, knowledge, wit and wisdom will be missed. We at SBM are honored to carry on his legacy.



Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also has produced two courses with The Great Courses, and published a book on critical thinking - also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.