In the 1950’s, This Over-The-Counter Drug Killed and Mutated Thousands of People

Dr. Kelsey meeting John F. Kennedy. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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The company selling the name-brand drug Distavel applied for FDA approval so that Thalidomide could be sold in the United States. They were producing millions of pills to meet the demand, and planned to ship them worldwide. One woman named Dr. Frances Kelsey was looking over the application. The US Distributor, William S. Merrell, did not do their due diligence with proper testing. Dr. Kelsey was concerned about how the drug may affect a developing fetus. Suddenly, medical studies began to appear that claimed that the drug was safe for consumption during the third trimester. The paper was actually written by the director of William S. Merrell, pretending to be a doctor.

The company was willing to do anything to sell these drugs, even if it meant putting children’s lives at risk. Dr. Kelsey was given a medal for figuring out the dangers of Thalidomide. For years, members of congress were against harsher regulations on the drug industry, most likely because of financial incentives. However, once the Thalidomide scandal was revealed, the opposition shrank away in horror. It was clear that there needed to be much higher standards for pharmaceutical companies to spread their over-the-counter medications.

Child born with a deformed hand. Credit: AllThatsInteresting

Unfortunately, the company continued to spread the drug to other parts of the world. When the company was finally brought to court, their defense lawyers tried to blame these deformities on everything under the sun. They accused the mothers of trying to get back-alley abortions. Then, they claimed it was the fault of nuclear fallout. The drug was banned across the world, and Grunenthal was found guilty. It was not until 2012 that Grunenthal actually apologized to the public for making Thalidomide. This was fifty years after the incidents. But as you will see, taking responsibility was too little too late.

By 2011, the BBC reported that there were fewer than 3,000 victims left alive in the United Kingdom. Many of the victims died early deaths, due to health complications. They are receiving payouts of $63,000 per year. For some, this is enough to take care of their needs. But for others, the cost of their specialized healthcare goes beyond what they are receiving from the lawsuit settlements. The victims in Germany were not even as lucky. They only receive $15,154 per year, which is hardly enough to survive, let alone pay for their care. There has been a push for additional lawsuits to get even more money out of Grunenthal, based on the possibility that they may have knowingly hired a scientist who once experimented on humans in a Nazi prison camp.