October 28, 2003

Wolfe '59 Speaks On Public Health

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An M.D. on a mission to end manipulations by the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries, Sidney M. Wolfe ’59 spoke yesterday on “The Politics of Health: My Career in Public Interest Medicine.” Wolfe is director of the Public Citizen Health Research Group based in Washington D.C., an independent nonprofit organization founded by Ralph Nader.

“It used to be that medical schools did most of the research on drugs,” Wolfe said. “Now it’s done by private pharmaceutical companies that work for a profit.”

After studying chemical engineering at Cornell, Wolfe attended Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. He intended to begin medical research by studying the toxicity of various clinical drugs. The onset of the Vietnam War caused Wolfe’s plan of action to change; he applied to and was accepted into the National Institute of Health, a government department involved in medical research, which exempted him from military service.

Once in Washington, Wolfe was exposed to the civil unrest that characterized the late 1960s. With the influence of a professor at Case Western who told him, “‘as a physician your obligation extends beyond your own patients to the public good.'” Wolfe cared for demonstrators injured in 1968 riots and helped to bring necessary healthcare to the imprisoned. Although a novice in the field of civil healthcare, Wolfe proved to be enthusiastic and effective.

“It was the first time I had done something outside of clinical research. I organized over 200 health professionals to make visits to the lock-ups….. the idea was to help doctors and nurses in other cities do the same thing,” he said.

Wolfe’s work did not go unnoticed: he was asked to help enforce the recall of infected IV fluids in hospitals nation-wide. He petitioned to the Food and Drug Administration, only to receive a response that justified the absence of a recall because it would cause a shortage in the amount of IV fluids available. With a little research, Wolfe found that the companies producing the IV fluids had “massive stockpiles” that would be more than enough to make up for the recall of the infected batch.

Wolfe describes the infected IV project as a turning point in his career.

“This was affecting the entire nation,” he stated. As a result of the national media coverage of the controversy, Wolfe began getting all sorts of phone calls with leads to healthcare issues.

After teaming up with Nader in 1971, Wolfe’s Health Research Group became a watchdog for the medical profession, which has criticized lax government regulation of pharmaceutical and health care companies. He is the author and researcher behind Worst Pills, Best Pills and Questionable Doctors, a web service that allows patients to search if their doctor has been disciplined for medical malpractice. The event was sponsored by the Health Careers Program of Cornell Career Services.

Archived article by Gretchen Heckman