Samuel Epstein: The Good Doctor

Samuel Epstein seeks a second opinion on the causes of cancer

| March-April 1999

Samuel Epstein has been fighting the establishment for most of his life. As an 18-year-old student in England, he led a militant youth movement opposing the British presence in Palestine. As a rising young pathologist, he revealed that his boss's “cure” for a childhood disease was based on fraudulent data. Most prominently, Epstein has for several decades challenged the unwillingness of the “cancer establishment”—the major cancer research institutions as well as both government and private funders—to seriously address the environmental causes of cancer.

“We're talking about high crimes and misdemeanors,” he says. “From the public health standpoint, the cancer establishment's refusal to act on freely available information is tantamount to criminal offenses.”

While the incidence of cancer has risen dramatically and new treatments have progressed modestly over the past four decades, Epstein argues, the cancer establishment has failed to recognize that most cancers can be prevented. Cancer, he insists, is caused primarily by chemical and physical agents in the environment. While people knowingly expose themselves to some carcinogens, like tobacco smoke, in most cases they unwittingly encounter carcinogens in their workplaces; in air, water, and food; and even in medical treatments such as estrogen replacement therapy and early mammographies.

Now professor of environmental and occupational medicine in the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois, Chicago, the 72-year-old Epstein has a distinguished record as a researcher, but he has had equal impact as an agitator and policy advocate. His blunt, uncompromising criticisms have won him admiration from citizen groups and, last December, a Right Livelihood Award, often called the “alternative Nobel prize.”

Epstein, the son of a prominent rabbinical scholar, became interested in the causes and prevention of cancer in medical school. But it wasn't until he went up against the Food and Drug Administration in 1965 that he realized fully how entangled the cancer establishment was with corporate interests. Then a 39-year-old researcher at Harvard Medical School, Epstein confronted the FDA with data indicating that a common treatment for athlete's foot, griseofulvin, was carcinogenic. When he asked how the FDA would respond, the agency's director replied, “Are you serious? This is on the market. We can't do anything about it.”

“That started me on another track,” Epstein recalls. “If you're going to stay in this field, you've got to shift some attention to politics.”