Tom Ferguson, MD, a physician who persuaded people to take charge of their own health, died April 14, 2006, at the UAMS medical center hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he was undergoing treatment for multiple myeloma. He was 62.
Dr. Ferguson straddled the worlds of mainstream and alternative medicine, empowering consumers not to ignore the dictates of medicine, but to fully understand them and all other appropriate avenues of treatment and prevention. He argued that informed self-care is the starting point for good health and worked to encourage medical professionals to treat clients as equal partners in achieving better outcomes. His goal was to change the entrenched practices of the conventional top-down hierarchy of the doctor-patient relationship.
After earning his medical degree from the Yale University School of Medicine in 1977, he launched a prolific career in consumer-focused medical writing as founder of Medical Self Care Magazine and as the health and medical editor for the Whole Earth Catalog in the 1970s. In 1979, he was interviewed by Dan Rather on 60 Minutes, introducing 40 million television viewers to what was then widely called the "self-care revolution."1
From 1980 to 1996, he authored or co-authored over a dozen books,2 including Health Online: How to Find Health Information, Support Groups and Self Help Communities in Cyberspace, a book Dean Ornish, MD has called "the Bible of self-care information on the Internet."3 With the rising popularity of the Internet, Dr. Ferguson's long history of advocacy for information-empowered medical consumers positioned him to be a leading proponent of online health information resources. He called laymen who used Internet medical resources "e-patients." In 1993, he organized the world's first conference devoted to computer systems designed for medical consumers. In 1998, he became editor and publisher of a newsletter called, "The Ferguson Report: the Newsletter of Consumer Health Informatics and Online Health."4 In 1999, he was one of 4 people to be recognized as an "Online Health Hero," an award given by the Intel Corporation's Health Initiative Project.2
In 2000, Dr. Ferguson began teaching the first-ever medical school course in Consumer Health Informatics at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. In early 2001, he joined the Pew Internet and American Life project as Senior Research Fellow for Online Health.1 At the time of his death, he was also a consultant to the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, an Adjunct Associate Professor of Health Informatics at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, a Senior Associate at Boston's Center for Clinical Computing, and most-recently an adjunct faculty at the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences Center, where he initiated a patient-centered, quality improvement program at the Myeloma Institute for Research and Therapy.2
When Dr. Ferguson became ill 15 years ago, he applied the principles he had advocated to himself. According to his wife, Meredith Mitchell Driess, "He kept with the traditional party line and did what the doctors told him he should do, but tweaked their advice in his own way. He read widely, worked out his own doses and was not afraid to experiment; when he heard about a clinical trial involving thalidomide, he called the drug company and told them he wanted to be in on it. He lived far longer than most people with this disease do."4
Dr. Ferguson was born in Ross, California, on July 8, 1943, but grew up in Coos Bay, Oregon. He did his undergraduate work at Reed College in Portland and received a master's degree in creative writing from San Francisco State University before pursuing medical studies. He moved to Austin, Texas in 1983. 2
"While he wasn't an Ôherb person,' Tom believed deeply in empowering people to take care of their medical needs as much as possible," said Michael Castleman, a former editor of Ferguson's Medical Self Care magazine. "To that end, he was very supportive of the dissemination of medical knowledge—all medical knowledge: mainstream, alternative, herbal—you name it. His mantra was: give people accurate information and they can decide for themselves how they want to proceed." Castleman further explained that although Ferguson was an MD, he never considered mainstream medicine as inherently superior to other healing arts. "Tom had deep respect for herbal medicine. He was well aware that it was the basis for much of modern pharmacology. And he felt a special affinity for herbal medicine because so much of it was self-care."
Peggy Brevoort, a pioneer in the herb community and currently President of the American Botanical Council Board of Trustees, said, "Tom and I were only a month apart in age and had a special bond as cousins; I think of him always as gentle, kind, giving, full of humor and intelligence and life; always caring for others before himself, even in his illness."
Dr. Ferguson is survived by his wife, Meredith, of Austin, Texas; his stepdaughter, Adrienne Dreiss of Manhattan; his mother, Helen Williams Ferguson of Coos Bay, Oregon; a brother, Fergus Mclean of Eugene, Oregon; and a sister, Kirpal Kaur Khalsa of Espa¯ola, New Mexico.
1. "What they're saying about Tom Ferguson" page. doctom.com Web site. Available at: http://doctom.com/about/saying.html. Accessed May 2, 2006.
2. Tom Ferguson, M.D. Austin American-Statesman. April 19-22, 2006.
3. About page. doctom.com Web site. Available at: http://doctom.com/about/. Accessed May 2, 2006.
4. Brozan N. Dr. Tom Ferguson, Who Urged Self-Education, Dies at 62. New York Times. April 24, 2006.