In 1926, when Samuel S. Epstein was born in Yorkshire, an English baby boy’s estimated life span was about 60 years. Epstein lived to be 91, after devoting his career to preventing cancer and heeding his own advice. He died of cardiac arrest on March 18 in Chicago.
In his own way, Epstein seemed to be getting the last word in an argument he first ignited four decades ago, when he blamed greedy manufacturers, lax regulators, misguided researchers and complicit charitable groups for what he saw as a coming cancer epidemic.
A widely read author and widely heard lecturer, Epstein was venerated by some as an environmental prophet and reviled by others as an overzealous toxin avenger. He outlived many of his critics, perhaps because he had practiced what he preached about prevention in his own life.
Epstein did not live his life in a bubble, but he sought to avoid tobacco, X-rays, pesticides, saccharin, talcum powder, cyclamates used as preservatives, hair spray with vinyl chloride, hot dogs dyed with nitrites, milk from cows injected with genetically engineered growth hormones and pajamas treated with a certain flame retardant — all of which he considered carcinogenic.
“In his early years, before all the research, he did smoke a pipe,” his son Julian said in a telephone interview. “But the things that we had data on he avoided religiously. He walked the walk.”
He added: “We were pretty conscious about prevention as a family. His view was more that we could readily avoid exposure to carcinogens, and that there are many available safe alternatives, if only the regulatory agencies would be more forward leaning and less beholden to industry.”
Epstein had summed up his thesis this way: “While much is known about the science of cancer, its prevention depends largely, if not exclusively, on political action.”
He advanced that premise in his book “The Politics of Cancer” (1978), which was embraced by environmentalists, consumer groups and organized labor and derided by the chemical industry and some of his fellow scientists.
“Few books have ignited such a firestorm of controversy,” Robert N. Proctor wrote in “Cancer Wars: How Politics Shapes What We Know and Don’t Know About Cancer” (1995).
Proctor, now at Stanford University, described Epstein’s book as an “indictment of industry malfeasance, research impotence and regulatory incompetence.”
That indictment was so sweeping, one critic complained, that Epstein’s disquieting alarms created a “free-floating paranoia among many people about everything they eat or breathe and, in others, a sense of hopeless resignation.”
Samuel Stanley Epstein was born on April 13, 1926, in Middlesbrough, in northern England, to the former Gertrude Joseph and Rabbi Isadore Epstein, who was principal of Jews’ College (now the London School of Jewish Studies).
He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physiology in 1947 from the University of London, where he also earned his medical degrees.
After immigrating to the United States in 1960, he conducted research at the Children’s Cancer Research Foundation (now the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston) before joining the faculty of Case Western University Medical School in Cleveland in 1971.
In 1976 he was named professor of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Illinois, in the Abraham Lincoln School of Medicine and School of Public Health. He taught there until he was named professor emeritus in 1999.
Besides his son Julian, who confirmed his death, he is survived by his wife, the former Catherine Dollive; another son, Mark; a daughter, Emily, from his first marriage, to Elizabeth Dougherty, which ended in divorce; and two grandchildren.
In his books and speaking appearances, Epstein was a statistic-spouting Cassandra who attributed rising cancer rates to occupational and household hazards (although he was accused of belatedly emphasizing the risks from smoking).
He spoke on behalf of Vietnam veterans who had been exposed to the defoliant Agent Orange. He also championed homeowners who fled the toxic waste oozing from the Love Canal dump in upstate New York in the 1970s.
He was never shy in choosing his targets, which included the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute, which he accused of potential conflicts of interest because they had corporate sponsors.
In 1995, at a news conference in Washington, Epstein, as chairman of the advocacy group Cancer Prevention Coalition, joined with consumer advocate Ralph Nader to release a “dirty dozen” list of familiar household products — including a baby powder, a brand of toothpaste and an aerosol disinfectant — that they labeled dangerously toxic.
Epstein helped draft the federal Toxic Substances Control and Resource Conservation Recovery Acts in the mid-1970s; was president of the Rachel Carson Trust for the Living Environment (now the Rachel Carson Council), which furthers her research on pesticides; and received the 2005 Albert Schweitzer Golden Grand Medal for Humanitarianism, awarded by the Albert Schweitzer World Academy of Medicine.
“He was very much a man of the moment — by which I mean the late 1970s — indicting industrial ‘chemicals’ as causing cancer,” Proctor said in an email. “He showed that powerful industries could cause cancer, that cancer was a political disease, requiring political solutions, which made him a bit like the Rachel Carson or Ralph Nader of cancer.”
He added; “His weak spot was tobacco, which he downplayed as distracting from what he thought were the real killers. His strength was in realizing that most cancers are preventable, caused by exposures to carcinogens. That is still a truth worth telling.”