Sidney M. Wolfe, a physician and consumer advocate who for more than 40 years hounded the pharmaceutical industry and the Food and Drug Administration over high prices, dangerous side effects and overlooked health hazards, bringing a new level of transparency and accountability to the world of medical care, died on Monday at his home in Washington. He was 86.
His wife, Suzanne Goldberg, said the cause was a brain tumor.
Along with the consumer advocate Ralph Nader, Dr. Wolfe founded the Health Research Group in 1971, and over the next four decades used it as a base for his relentless campaigns on behalf of health care users. At the door to his office, on the seventh floor of a dingy building near Dupont Circle in Washington, he hung a sign that read “Populus iamdudum defutatus est” — Latin for, roughly, “The people have been screwed long enough.”
His strategy, built around what he called “research-based advocacy,” was to flood the zone with information: news releases, congressional testimonies and interviews in the news media. A visitor to his office would invariably come away with a stack of reports recently issued by the Health Research Group.
Dr. Wolfe’s first effort, a few months before officially founding the group, was to write a letter with Mr. Nader to the F.D.A. about contamination in bags of intravenous fluid manufactured by Abbott Laboratories — and then to release the letter to the news media. Within two days, some two million bags had been recalled.
The IV case “led me to think that there were an awful lot of problems that had been well documented, but no one had done anything about them,” he told The Washington Post in 1989.
Soon after their success with Abbott, Dr. Wolfe and Mr. Nader found themselves flooded with tips and leaks from doctors and researchers in the government and industry. In response they created the Health Research Group, an offshoot of Mr. Nader’s organization, Public Citizen.
Over his long tenure at the group Dr. Wolfe managed to get more than a dozen drugs removed from the market, and warning labels affixed to dozens of others. He took on more than just drugs — among his targets were contact lenses, pacemakers, tampons, cigarettes and toothpaste, anything that might touch on health and health care.
He wrote a monthly newsletter in which he included a regular column called “Outrage of the Month.” In 1980, he self-published a book, “Worst Pills, Best Pills: A Consumer’s Guide to Avoiding Drug-Induced Death or Illness.” It became a New York Times best seller and has sold more than 2.2 million copies over multiple editions.
His critics — and they were legion — called Dr. Wolfe a “gadfly” and a “zealot,” and even his admirers acknowledged that he could be demanding and impatient. For his 75th birthday, 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!”
He laughed off the jabs, but also insisted that he took a more measured approach than his critics said. He did not go after emergency or lifesaving drugs, like those aimed at cancer or AIDS, he said, because he felt their benefits outweighed virtually any side effect. He also pointed out that most of what he published was not outrage but information — for example, a regular series in his newsletter about how to read a drug label.
But he never apologized for taking a tough stand against the health care industry.
“Somebody has to look out for people who are being manipulated by the hospitals, doctors, insurance and drug companies,” he told The Progressive magazine in 1993.
Sidney Manuel Wolfe was born on June 12, 1937, in Cleveland, the son of Fred and Sophia (Marks) Wolfe. His mother was an English teacher, his father an inspector for the U.S. Labor Department.
His first career aspiration was chemical engineering, which he studied at Cornell University. But he decided to find a new path after spending a summer working in a factory that made hydrofluoric acid, where regular contact with chemicals meant that “every day I’d go home with first-degree burns,” he told The Washington Post in 1978.
He transferred to Western Reserve University (today Case Western Reserve University), from which he graduated in 1959, and continued on into medical school. There he studied under Dr. Benjamin Spock, the pediatrician and peace activist, and spent time working with drug-overdose cases — two experiences that would shape his career.
After receiving his medical degree in 1965, Dr. Wolfe served in the Public Health Service, then moved to the National Institutes of Health, where he researched addiction. He also worked with the Medical Committee for Human Rights, a group of health care professionals active in the civil rights movement.
Late one night he called a friend and fellow doctor to ask him to provide care for a sick woman associated with the Black Panthers.
“He said, ‘Get your ass out of bed,’” recalled the doctor, Anthony Fauci, later the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in a 1992 interview with The Wall Street Journal. “That’s vintage Sid.”
Dr. Wolfe’s first marriage, to Ava Albert, ended in divorce. He married Dr. Goldberg, a psychologist and artist, in 1978. Along with her, he is survived by four children from his first marriage, Hannah, Leah, Rachel and Sarah Wolfe; two stepsons, Nadav and Stefan Savio; five grandchildren; and his sister, Janet, also a psychologist.
Dr. Wolfe received a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as a “genius grant,” in 1990. From 2008 to 2012 he served on the Drug Safety and Risk Management Advisory Committee, a part of the F.D.A. He retired from running the Health Research Group in 2013.
He remained active at Public Citizen, though he insisted that he had significantly cut back his time commitment, from 60 or more hours a week to a mere 40 to 45.