A lie wrapped in an apology is still a lie. It is a big lie, a particularly offensive lie, coming as it does from the German company Chemie Grünenthal responsible for inflicting its notorious drug thalidomide on hundreds of thousands of women in 52 countries. Some 90,000 babies are calculated to have died in spontaneous abortion, but at least 10,000 mothers are known to have given birth to malformed babies between 1958 and 1961; the most damaged survive today as limbless trunks, others whose legs and arms were reduced to digital “flipper” extrusions from the shoulder, and thousands have severe internal injuries as well.
Grünenthal (now GmbH) was a small private company set up after World War Two as an offshoot of an old family firm that made soaps and detergents. Its first pharmaceuticals were produced under foreign license, but thalidomide (which it called Contergan) was its own, a sedative discovered by accident in the spring of 1954 by a 32-year-old chemist and doctor, Heinrich Mückter. To exploit the postwar sleeping-pill boom, Grünenthal marketed it massively from October 1957 as “completely safe,” “completely atoxic,” and free of the unpleasant side effects of barbiturates. The sales department called it “the apple of our eye” because it was so profitable. From 1958 to 1961 they zeroed in on promoting it for use by expectant mothers.
The apology for the tragedy has come from Grünenthal’s new chief executive, Harald Stock, who at the end of last month stood outside the company’s Rhineland offices in the small town of Stolberg to unveil a bronze sculpture of a thalidomide child with foreshortened “flipper” arms. “We ask for forgiveness that for nearly 50 years we didn’t find a way of reaching out to you, human being to human being.”
The emotion and apparent sincerity were appealing, but in the next breath he made forgiveness impossible. “Grünenthal acted,” he said, “in accordance with the state of scientific knowledge and all industry standards for testing new drugs that were relevant and acknowledged in the 1950s and 1960s.” That was flatly untrue, a product of either deep-rooted cynicism, belying his whole apology, or of appalling ignorance. Grünenthal has propagated the big lie for 50 years, retailing the notion that reproductive tests were unnecessary because nobody could possibly have realized in the fifties that a drug could penetrate the placental barrier and reach the fetus. (Stock and the company did not respond to requests for comment on these charges.)
It is 39 years since, as editor of the Sunday Times of London in the early seventies, I was associated with thalidomide investigations. Our survey of the scientific literature, consultations with reputable pharmaceutical companies and independent specialist advice swiftly found that reproductive studies were routinely done in the 1950s, because it was widely recognized that a drug could indeed reach the fetus. The tranquilizers in direct competition with thalidomide were all tested for teratogenic effects and the results published. If reproductive tests had been done on thalidomide, they would not necessarily have shown precisely what deformities would be produced, dependent on the time of ingestion in relation to the development of the fetus, but they would certainly have shown that drugs could endanger unborn children in some way.