Beginning with her first published article in 2003, Harriet Hall, MD, gained a devoted following of scientists, health professionals, and consumers around the world who treasured her clarity, wisdom, wit, insight, intellectual humility, and humanity. Her many writings, lectures, and other media appearances addressed a wide range of topics, including pseudoscience, questionable health claims, quackery, alternative medicine, science-based medicine, controversial medical practices, and critical thinking. She was a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, an editorial board member and contributing editor of Skeptical Inquirer, a contributing editor of Skeptic, an advisor to the Quackwatch network, an overseas friend of Australia-based Friends of Science in Medicine, an editorial review board member for the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, and an international editorial board member of the journal Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies.
On January 12, her husband, Kirk Hall, announced on her Facebook page:
I know Harriet’s work was followed and admired by many of you. It is with great sadness that I must tell you my beloved wife passed away quietly and unexpectedly in her sleep last night. At this moment, she would probably simply ask you to have a kind thought for her, be kind to each other and continue to support her belief in the truth.
Please take care.
Many of Hall’s activities are cataloged on her website, skepdoc.info. The site’s editorial team announced efforts will be made to make sure her work remains available.
Most of her columns, articles, and book reviews, were published:
- on Tuesdays since January 2008 on the Science-Based Medicine blog, where she was one of five founding editors;
- in Skeptical Inquirer magazine, including her “Reality Is the Best Medicine” columns published since the September/October 2018 issue;
- skepticalinquirer.org, where her monthly “SkepDoc’s Corner” columns have been published since September 2016, including some that were translated into Spanish by Alejandro Borgo of the Center for Inquiry Argentina;
- in Skeptic magazine, including her column “The SkepDoc,” published in each issue since 2006;
- in eSkeptic, for which she was a frequent contributor;
- at Quackwatch, where she served as a medical advisor;
- in The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine; and
- in Free Inquiry magazine.
From January through June 2010, she wrote a brief column called “The Health Inspector” in O, The Oprah Magazine. In her September 7, 2010, post at Science-Based Medicine, she described how the magazine’s editors made it a “bizarre, frustrating experience” for her, thwarting her efforts to “make sure that at least my one little corner of the magazine was scientifically rigorous.”
In 2015, the James Randi Educational Foundation released a free, ten-part video series of lectures by Hall on Science-Based Medicine along with a twenty-six-page downloadable course guide.
Her 2008 book, Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon, describes how she became a pilot and helped bring about equality for women in the U.S. Air Force. She retired in 1989 as a full colonel after serving for twenty years in the Air Force. In addition to practicing family medicine and flight medicine, she held administrative positions, including chief of Aerospace Medicine and director of Base Medical Services. Additional details about her Air Force career are provided at the Science-Based Medicine blog.
She co-authored the ninth edition of the college textbook Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions (2013). She was disappointed by both its exorbitant price (typical of textbooks) and the fact that it was unavailable in libraries, putting it out of reach of many. An affordable Kindle version of the book was made available in 2019.
In 2022, Hall and Kevin Howell published the children’s book There’s No Such Thing as the Tooth Fairy! It was based on a fable about the Tooth Fairy at the end of one of Hall’s most popular articles, “Teaching Pigs to Sing: An Experiment in Bringing Critical Thinking to the Masses,” published in the May/June 2006 issue of Skeptical Inquirer. Howell adapted the fable for the book and provided illustrations.
Hall was much admired by participants in Quackwatch’s Health Fraud Discussion List, where she contributed to more than 2,000 discussion threads. In 2005, a thread was started “In Praise of Dr. Hall,” where appreciation of her writings was a recurring theme.
She was a popular speaker at The Amazing Meeting (James Randi Educational Foundation), the Trottier Public Science Symposium at McGill University, Skeptic’s Toolbox workshops, the World Skeptic Congress, CSICon (Committee for Skeptical Inquiry), the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, the Australian Skeptics National Convention, LogiCal, and other conferences. She was greatly missed at science and skepticism conferences in recent years. She was unable to travel due to health problems but nevertheless continued to write prolifically.
The SkepDoc wrote on her website that she didn’t think her credentials meant much. She explained:
There are Harvard-educated MDs and PhDs with impressive credentials who have written reams of nonsense, and there are people like James Randi who didn’t go to college but whose writings are consistently reliable, rigorously researched and based on fact and reason. I hope no one accepts anything I write just because I’m an MD. Writing should be judged on its own merits, not on who wrote it.
Nevertheless, her educational background is notable. After graduating from the University of Washington with a baccalaureate, magna cum laude, in Spanish language and literature, she earned her medical degree from University of Washington School of Medicine. She completed her internship at David Grant USAF Medical Center at Travis Air Force Base in California and her family practice residency at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. She was board certified in family practice.
The January 15, 2023, the Skeptic Zone (Australia) podcast paid tribute to Hall. It includes an interview with her by host Richard Saunders from 2007. Remembrances honoring her have also been published at sciencebasedmedicine.org, edzardernst.com, painscience.com, and www.respectfulinsolence.com, as well as on other websites and on social media. Not surprisingly, vile anti-vaccine propagandists have spread nasty, baseless messages online blaming her death on COVID-19 vaccination.
Harriet Hall provided this rationale for sometimes writing about pseudoscientific nonsense even when it isn’t well-known: “My SkepDoc’s Rule is ‘before you believe a claim, find out who disagrees with it and why.’ And you can’t do that if no one has bothered to disagree with it yet.”
William M. London
William M. London is a professor of public health at Cal State LA, the editor of the free weekly email newsletter Consumer Health Digest, and the developer of CFI’s Dubious COVID-19 Treatments and Preventives page from which most of the discussion of hydroxychloroquine in this essay is derived.