The Nazis at the Heart of the Worst Drug Scandal of All Time

By Williams, Roger; Stone, Jonathan | Newsweek, September 17, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Nazis at the Heart of the Worst Drug Scandal of All Time


Williams, Roger, Stone, Jonathan, Newsweek


Byline: Roger Williams with Jonathan Stone

Revelations of their connections with the makers of a deadly drug.

The girl's head is flung back, her mouth open in a cry of pain. She doesn't feel anything. She is a bronze sculpture symbolizing the suffering of 10,000 or more children around the world born in the '50s and '60s who did suffer greatly, and still do, as adults. Because their mothers ingested the notorious drug thalidomide, they were born without legs or arms or with foreshortened limbs like The Sick Child cast in bronze. Some were born deaf and blind; some with curved spines, or with heart and brain damage.

The over-the-counter tranquilizer was hailed as a wonder drug when released in the late 1950s. Its maker, Chemie Grunenthal, a small German company relatively new to pharmacology, marketed it aggressively in 46 countries with the guarantee that it could be "given with complete safety to pregnant women and nursing mothers without any adverse effect on mother and child." During the four years it was on the market, doctors prescribed it as a nontoxic antidote to morning sickness and sleeplessness--and it sold by the millions.

For nearly half a century, the privately owned company was silent and secretive about the epic tragedy it created while earning a vast profit. Even before its release, the wife of an employee gave birth to a baby without ears, but Chemie Grunenthal ignored the warning. Within two years, an estimated million people in West Germany were taking the drug on a daily basis.

But by early 1959, reports started to surface that the drug was toxic, with scores of adults suffering from peripheral neuritis damaging the nervous system. As profits kept rolling in, however, Chemie Grunenthal suppressed that information, bribing doctors and pressuring critics and medical journals for years. Even after an Australian doctor connected thalidomide with deformed births in 1961, it took four months for the company to withdraw the drug. By then, it is estimated to have affected 100,000 pregnant women, causing at least 90,000 miscarriages and thousands of deformities to the babies who survived.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that thalidomide caused miscarriages and birth defects, Chemie Grunenthal for years fought to resist paying the necessary compensation required for a lifetime of care--and still does. Victims say the company's payments have been derisory and far from enough to pay for the expensive care needed by those severely deformed.

In 1970 the company agreed to pay about $28 million into a fund for the victims and was given permanent legal immunity in Germany in return. When money in the fund ran out, the German government made compensation payments, and in 2009 Grunenthal replenished the fund with a one-off endowment of ?50 million--about $63 million. (Elsewhere in the world, there are still pending claims and class-action suits.)

Beyond monetary restitution, victims and their families had to wait more than five decades for an apology. But on Aug. 31 this year, the company's new CEO, Harald Stock, stepped outside its headquarters in Stolberg to unveil the bronze sculpture of the suffering girl and to apologize to all the victims, heartbroken families, and survivors. His sincerity was manifest. "We ask for forgiveness that for nearly 50 years we didn't find a way of reaching out to you from human being to human being," Stock said. "We ask that you regard our long silence as a sign of the shock that your fate caused in us."

With a go-ahead smile and close-shaven head, the Freiburg-born executive had arrived in January 2009, following the retirement of Sebastian Wirtz, the sixth generation to head the family firm. The "we" in his plea for forgiveness referred to the company. But his announcement in Stolberg brought no message from the Wirtz family--or anybody else still living who presided over thalidomide's silent years. …

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