The skeptical community has lost a shining star. On May 25, 2015, Wallace Sampson, MD, died in California at the age of eighty-five from complications of heart surgery; he had been in the hospital since February. He is survived by his wife of fifty-nine years, five sons, and nine grandchildren.
Wally was an oncologist and professor emeritus at the Stanford University School of Medicine. He started looking into false medical claims after he saw patients resorting to the bogus cancer cure Laetrile. He soon became an expert in dissecting false claims both in conventional medicine and in unconventional practices such as acupuncture and homeopathy. An indefatigable crusader for science and reason, he seemed to be everywhere. He wrote for medical journals and popular publications, appeared on television and on podcasts, testified in court, taught a course on alternative medicine at Stanford that emphasized its unscientific aspects, spoke at conferences, and was often quoted in the media.
He was one of the founders of the National Council Against Health Fraud, the Science-Based Medicine blog, and the Institute for Science in Medicine. He was also a member of many other scientific and skeptical organizations such as the Friends of Science in Medicine. He was a fellow of CSICOP, contributed articles to Skeptical Inquirer, and was part of the Second CSICOP delegation to China that investigated traditional medicine and pseudoscience in that country. He founded and edited The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine under the auspices of the Center for Inquiry. He was on the faculty of the CSI’s Skeptic’s Toolbox workshop in Eugene, Oregon, from 1998 to 2008.
I never really got to know Wally that well, but he changed my life forever. I didn’t meet him until I was in my late fifties, when I attended the 2002 Skeptic’s Toolbox. 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 in which 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 it, both pro and con. One thing led to another. You might say chiropractic was my gateway drug to critiquing alternative medicine, and it might never have happened if Wally hadn’t sparked my interest.
When I came across a really stupid pseudoscientific study that was being used to promote the bogus product “Vitamin O,” I felt comfortable enough with Wally to complain to him about it via email. 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. He persuaded me. 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 the Skeptical Inquirer as “Oxygen Is Good, Even When It’s Not There.”
And so my career as a writer was launched. As I continued to write, Wally continued to provide encouragement, praise, and support. His emails validated my work and motivated me to keep going. Over the years, a pattern developed. At the Toolbox or in an email, Wally would say something that would strike me as questionable or overly pessimistic. I would investigate and would invariably find that he was accurate and that the problem 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 could never hope to fill his shoes, but by then I had some shoes of my own.
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, “Look, there’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.
This article was originally published in Skeptical Inquirer.