Wallace Ira Sampson, a longtime “quackbuster,” emeritus clinical professor of medicine at Stanford University, and former director of oncology at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, died May 25 following a three-month hospital stay for complications following cardiac surgery. He was 85.
Sampson was one of a group of scientists and physicians who focused on the growing influence of alternative medicine, said Stephen Barrett, a fellow quackbuster.
“Sampson was highly educated, well informed, and a skilled editor,” Barrett said to The Cancer Letter. “He had a lot of original work and was the first person who sounded the alarm about the infiltration of alternative quackery in medical schools. When it came to technology, there have not been a lot of people who have the ability to look at the statistical reasoning within scientific papers and he’s one of the few people who could do that effectively.”
Barrett is a retired psychiatrist, author, co-founder of the National Council Against Health Fraud, and the webmaster of Quackwatch.
During the 1980s, Sampson chaired the California Cancer Advisory Council, which was a major force in combating cancer fraud in the state. He also served as board chairman of the National Council Against Health Fraud (1990-1998) and editor of the journal Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine.
Born and raised in Hollywood, Calif., the son of David James Sampson, a pelt wholesaler, and Bernice (née Freilich), Sampson spent most of his life in Los Altos, Calif.
Sampson attended UCLA as an undergraduate, and received his M.D. from UC Berkeley and UCSF. He met his wife Rita and her son Rob while he interned at Minneapolis General Hospital, where she worked as a nurse.
They married at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, right after he completed boot camp, and left for Frankfurt, Germany, where, a year later, his son Paul was born. After completing his military duty Sampson returned with Rita and their two sons to Los Angeles, where Buck, Dan, and David were born.
“He raised five of us boys, and while none of us went into medicine, all of us chose disciplines that demand critical thinking and somewhat of a familiarity with science,” said David Sampson, director of media relations at the American Cancer Society. “We credit him with turning us into the kind of adults who ask the same kinds of questions he always asked. We now know these critical thinking skills are really vital to society moving forward.
“My own interests in cancer and becoming a cancer journalist—and now PR person—was sparked by spending Saturdays in the medical library while he was making the rounds and meeting patients,” David said to The Cancer Letter. “It’s little things like that that make me remember him fondly. He was a really gentle soul, funny, cute and at the same time really challenged all of us to ask tough questions.”
After completing his residency at Harbor General Hospital in Los Angeles, Sampson became a resident in hematology at UCSF and the family moved to Oakland, Calif. Shortly thereafter, Sampson began his career as a physician of internal medicine and oncology at the Sunnyvale Medical Clinic.
He went on to start a private practice adjacent to El Camino Hospital in Mt. View, Calif., eventually ending his medical career as the director of oncology at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. He was also an early advocate for the right of terminally ill patients to die in the comfort of their own homes.
“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,” said David Gorski, a surgical oncologist at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute specializing in breast cancer surgery, where he also serves as the Medical Director of the Alexander J. Walt Comprehensive Breast Center and Cancer Liaison Physician for the American College of Surgeons Committee on Cancer.
“Indeed, his 2002 article on the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, now known as the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, 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,” Gorski said to The Cancer Letter. “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. 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.”
In retirement, Sampson accepted a professorship and taught courses at Stanford University, and started the journal The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine.
“He did countless interviews with television, radio, and print journalists as he fought tirelessly to maintain high levels of scrutiny and review for alternative medical practices and remedies,” David said.
“In addition to the many patients whose lives were touched by his care, he also leaves a powerful legacy through his later work teaching journalists and the lay public to use evidence to form their viewpoint on unproven treatments, an approach once viewed as cynical, but now demanded of journalists reporting on health matters.”
Harriet Hall, a retired Air Force physician and flight surgeon who writes about pseudoscientific and alternative medicine, said Sampson was responsible for launching her career.
“I never really got to know Wally that well, but he changed my life forever,” Hall said to The Cancer Letter. “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.
“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.”
Sampson is survived by his wife of 59 years, Rita (née Landry) Sampson, brother Sandy, sons Robert, Paul (Suzanne), Buck (Kathryn), Dan (Dolores), and David, and grandchildren Peter, Rachel, Julia, Annie, Lorenzo, Lila, Rebecca, Maya, and Rylan. No memorial service is planned at this time.
Matthew Bin Han Ong contributed to this story.