Quack Fighter Wallace Sampson

September 23, 2015

Wallace Sampson, who died May 25, 2015, was an oncologist, a professor emeritus at the Stanford University School of Medicine, anti-quackery activist, a colleague, and friend, who once helped me prepare for an undercover role as a dying patient seeking out a bogus cancer cure in Mexico. Please read Harriet Hall’s tribute to Wally—her mentor—in the September/October 2015 Skeptical Inquirer. Had he done nothing more than inspired her—“the Skepdoc”—to follow in his footsteps, he would have left an indelible mark, but he did much, much more.

As Harriet writes, “An indefatigable crusader for science and reason, he seemed to be everywhere. He wrote for medical journals and popular publications, appeared on television and in 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 a co-founder of important activist organizations, such as the National Council Against Health Fraud and the Institute for Science in Medicine. I was honored to be his colleague as a fellow of CSI, a writer for Skeptical Inquirer, and Research Fellow of an organization he founded, the Commission for Scientific Medicine and Mental Health. On separate occasions we each represented CSI in China, researching what is there called “traditional” medicine. Compared with Wally, however, in the field of alternative medicine at least, I was small potatoes.

Nevertheless, as a field investigator, I planned a trip to Mexico to investigate Laetrile—the bogus claims of which had prompted Wally to look into other false medical cures, not only in science-based medicine but also in “alternative medicine,” such as homeopathy, so called therapeutic touch, and acupuncture. Outlawed in the U.S., Laetrile is the trade name for a substance, derived from the pits of apricots and certain other fruits, touted as a cure for cancer. In 1977, at a U.S. Senate subcommittee he chaired, the late Senator Edward Kennedy concluded that Laetrile’s promoters were “slick salesmen who would offer a false sense of hope.”

Naturally, I turned to Wally Sampson—an oncologist with expert knowledge of Laetrile—to help prep me for my undercover role in Mexico. I would pose as a terminally ill prostate-cancer patient. (In fact, I built on my otherwise unfortunate situation of having had a false-positive test for that disease, that had required a more invasive test and painful specimen-taking.)

Wally thought I was ready and—accompanied by skeptic Vaughn Rees, who has helped me with many investigations—I was soon at Oasis of Hope Hospital in Tijuana. With Vaughn role-playing as one devotedly hovering over a dying friend, and I telling a receptionist in a tremulous voice, “I’m scared,” I was soon filling out forms, and, both there and in a later follow-up by mail, I was offered a variety of treatments. A video narrator explained, “Although conventional chemotherapy and radiation treatments are available, the heart of the program is alternative therapy.” This included Laetrile and prayer because, as a doctor intoned, “In this hospital the medical director is Jesus Christ, and that makes a difference.” (See my “Mythical Mexico,” in Skeptical Inquirer, July/August 2004.)

Whenever I have thought of that role and, indeed, whenever I think of “alternative” medical issues, I picture Wally Sampson. We will miss his penetrating eyes, his quick if sometimes wry smile, his gentlemanly bearing, and, above all, his wise counsel and devotion to the truth.