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Alternative Medicine Critic Wallace Sampson Has Passed Away at Age 85

May. 31, 2015 by | Comments (6)

Dr. Wallace Sampson speaking about acupuncture in a television interview. Watch video below.

I’m sad to note the recent passing of a longtime leading critic of alternative medicine, Dr. Wallace Ira Sampson (March 29, 1930–May 25, 2015). Our colleagues at the Skeptical Inquirer reported the news on their Facebook Page on Wednesday, saying, “We were deeply saddened to learn of the death of our friend and CSI Fellow, Wallace (Wally) Sampson, earlier this week.” An obituary has since been published by the San Jose Mercury News. It reports that Dr. Sampson “passed away peacefully on May 25, 2015 at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center”—the very hospital at which he served as Director of Oncology from 1991 to 1997.

Dr. Sampson was a key player in the anti-quackery activist movement which predated, grew up alongside, and (beginning in the mid-1970s) combined to a significant extent with the movement for organized scientific skepticism. (For some details of the California Council Against Health Fraud and other early quack-busting groups, see this short history.) He was the founding Editor of the peer-reviewed journal Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, a Founding Fellow and board member (emeritus) of Institute for Science in Medicine, a blogger and editor emeritus at Science-Based Medicine, and a founding member of the Bay Area Skeptics. Many of his articles and interviews are available here in a collection of links compiled by the Institute for Science in Medicine.

It’s sometimes supposed that skepticism’s interest in medical misinformation and misguided treatments is a recent innovation. The truth is that questionable and fraudulent health claims have been central preoccupations for generations of skeptical activists. Scrutiny of claims of alternative medicine is a critical tradition that reaches back through Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. and beyond. Quackery has always been a public health issue; quack-busting, a vital public service. Four decades ago, Wallace Sampson and his colleagues made sure that the evaluation of alternative health claims would remain a central concern for modern organized skepticism. It falls to us to continue that work, now and for generations to come. It’s certain that work will be needed.

I understand that a tribute to Sampson will appear later this week at Science-Based Medicine. I will add links to this and to any additional tributes as they appear.

In the meantime, I share this video, below. In this television segment hosted by Michael Shermer, Dr. Sampson speaks out about the practice of acupuncture and the metaphysics of Traditional Chinese Medicine:


Tributes are now appearing from his skeptical colleagues who specialize in health-related controversies.

Skeptic columnist Harriet Hall has shared a reflection over at CSI (formerly CSICOP). “The skeptical community has lost a shining star,” Hall writes:

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.

Health blogger “Orac” (David Gorski) also has a tribute posted, in which he credits Sampson as a “major influence on my development as a skeptic.” Although they “butted heads on a couple of occasions,” Orac praises Sampson’s decades of service in the battle against quackery:

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.

In a tribute at Science-Based Medicine, Steven Novella praises Sampson’s “gentle demeanor, knowledge, wit and wisdom,” saying,

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. … Wally was fighting against health fraud back when it was still called health fraud, rather than “alternative medicine”…. 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.

Daniel Loxton

Daniel Loxton is the Editor of INSIGHT at and of Junior Skeptic, the 10-page kids’ science section bound within Skeptic magazine. Daniel has been an avid follower of the paranormal literature since childhood, and of the skeptical literature since his youth. He is also an award-winning author. Read Daniel’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

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Jim Veihdeffer
June 5, 2015 2:57 pm

As much as I appreciated the tribute to Sampson, the dated video with Dr. Shermer sounds more like a tribute to the metaphysics of Traditional Chinese Medicine, with one commentator solemnly avowing “Apuncuture works!”…and it doesn’t really matter if we understand why, after all “we don’t understand all the details about how aspirin works.”

June 3, 2015 6:02 am

Wondering what he died from?

June 5, 2015 9:26 am
Reply to  Daniel Loxton

How ironic that Dr. Sampson’s life was apparently compromised due to complications from a “Western” medical procedure. I wonder if he might have achieved better results had he been open to, and incorporated, some of the “alternative” medical methods that he apparently disdained?

June 5, 2015 5:25 pm
Reply to  Joe

He was in his 80s and had a heart problem serious enough to require surgery. Everyone knows that surgery is risky, especially on a guy in his 80s. For example, there’s always a risk of infection or not waking up from anesthesia. I’m sure that he and/or his doctors weighed the risks and figured that surgery was his best chance. Maybe luck wasn’t on his side and in retrospect he would’ve been better off without the surgery, or maybe he would’ve died even sooner without the surgery. Betting on unproven alternative methods would’ve been irrational.

June 1, 2015 4:49 pm

I’m sorry to hear that. I met him once at a Skeptic’s Toolbox conference. He has left a foundation of skeptical activism for us to build upon.

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