Worst drug scandal of all time
Roger Williams and Jonathan Stone on recent revelations of Nazi connections with the German chemical company which made the so-called wonderdrug thalidomide
By Roger Williams and Jonathan Stone
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 symbolising the suffering of 10,000 or more children around the world born in the 1950s 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 tranquiliser was hailed as a wonder drug when released in the late 1950s. Its maker, Chemie Grünenthal, 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 non-toxic 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 Grünenthal 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 Grünenthal 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 babies.
Despite the overwhelming evidence that thalidomide caused miscarriages and birth defects, Chemie Grünenthal 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 €25m 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 Grünenthal replenished the fund with a one-off endowment of €55m. (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 apologise 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 Jan 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.
And victims were upset because the company’s contrition is still not matched in the level of compensation.
It is increasingly clear that, in the immediate postwar years, a rogues’ gallery of wanted and convicted Nazis, mass murderers who had practised their science in notorious death camps, ended up working at Grünenthal, some of them directly involved in the development of thalidomide.
What they had to offer was knowledge and skills developed in experiments that no civilised society would ever condone. It was in this company of men, indifferent to suffering and believers in a wretched philosophy that life is cheap, that thalidomide was developed and produced.
Stolberg is Wirtz town, a clutch of attractive buildings that sit snug in a green valley around a medieval castle on the eastern outskirts of Aachen in North Rhine–Westphalia. Its prosperous air is due in large part to the family firm founded by Andreas Augustus Wirtz in the 19th century.
Devoutly Catholic, the Wirtz family has for decades been the pillar of Aachen society, and their philanthropy has included a new roof on the city’s imperial cathedral, built by Charlemagne in 786. Today the company has a global reach, with affiliates in 26 countries. It employs 4,200 people worldwide and has revenues approaching $1.3bn, mostly from painkillers. Products from its perfume subsidiary, Mäurer & Wirtz, include 4711 and Tabac, while the Dalli-Werke subsidiary concentrates on household cleaning products.
Many who live in the town rely on the company for their livelihood; some have been employed there for many years. Men and women who worked as child slave labourers for the company during the Second World War carried on clocking in well into middle age, reluctant to speak about the company’s past.
Dr Mückter, chief of research and production, was enriched by thalidomide sales and helped cover up the drug’s horrific effects. At Nuremberg, mass murderer Otto Ambros was sentenced to eight years in prison. He came to head the company’s advisory committee.
At the outbreak of war in 1939, the family-owned company was in the hands of Hermann Wirtz, aided by his twin brother, Alfred, an engineer and fellow Nazi party member. The company benefited from Hitler’s Aryanisation programme by reportedly taking over two Jewish-owned companies, one of which made the Tabac range it still sells to this day.
At war’s end, the business, which until then had focused mostly on soap, perfumes, and cleaning products, found a new direction. In 1946 the Wirtz family set up Chemie Grünenthal, a small-town company that would become a haven for labour-camp scientists and doctors looking for work as it developed drugs desperately needed in the war’s aftermath.
The fact that former Nazi Party members were recruited by Grünenthal was not altogether surprising. Major American companies such as Standard Oil and Du Pont maintained commercial links with the Nazi regime during the war and afterward recruited former Nazi scientists, too.
Among those invited to Stolberg by Hermann Wirtz was Martin Staemmler, a leading proponent of the Nazi “racial hygiene” programme. Following Germany’s invasion of Poland, he had worked with the SS on its population policy, deciding who should live and who shouldn’t. At Grünenthal, he was head of pathology at the time thalidomide was being sold.
Another euthanasia enthusiast was Hans Berger-Prinz, who worked with Hitler’s personal physician, the handsome Karl Brandt, the lead defendant at the so-called doctors’ trial at the Nuremberg war-crimes tribunal. Brandt, Germany’s senior medical official during the war, was executed after he was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his involvement in medical experiments and procedures on prisoners and civilians.
In 1968, when Grünenthal executives were put on trial and charged with negligent manslaughter and causing grievous bodily harm, deformity, and sickness through the selling of Contergan, the German brand name for thalidomide, Berger-Prinz spoke for the defence.
Dr Ernst-Günther Schenck, portrayed in Downfall, the 2004 film about the last days of Hitler, is the only uniformed Nazi known to have found refuge at Grünenthal, though he was not involved in the thalidomide programme. As the inspector of nutrition for the SS, he developed a protein sausage that was tested on 370 prisoners in concentration camps, killing many.
He was barred from working as a doctor again in Germany after returning from 10 years as a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union. Grünenthal gave him a job in Aachen.
Grünenthal also offered employment to Heinz Baumkötter, an SS hauptsturm-führer, the chief concentration-camp doctor in Mauthausen and Natzweiler-Struthof, and, most notoriously, from 1942 chief medical officer in Sachsenhausen. Sentenced to life imprisonment by the Soviet Union, in 1956 he was, like Schenck, returned to Germany, where he was employed by the Wirtz family at Chemie Grünenthal.
Perhaps the best known of Grünenthal’s murderous employees was Otto Ambros. He had been one of the four inventors of the nerve gas sarin. Clearly a brilliant chemist, described as charismatic, even charming, he was Hitler’s adviser on chemical warfare and had direct access to the führer — and committed crimes on a grand scale.
As a senior figure in IG Farben, the giant cartel of chemical and pharmaceutical companies involved in numerous war crimes, he set up a forced labour camp at Dyhernfurth to produce nerve gases before creating the monolithic Auschwitz-Monowitz chemical factory to make synthetic rubber and oil.
In 1948 Ambros was found guilty at Nuremberg of mass murder and enslavement, and sentenced to eight years in prison. But four years later, he was set free to aid the Cold War research effort, which he did, working for J Peter Grace, Dow Chemical, and the US Army Chemical Corps.
Ambros was the chairman of Grünenthal’s advisory committee at the time of the development of thalidomide and was on the board of the company when Contergan was being sold. Having covered up so much of his own past, he could bring his skills to bear in attempts to cover up the trail that led from the production of thalidomide back through its hasty trials to any origins it may have had in the death camps.
The central figure at the Grünenthal trial in Aachen was Heinrich Mückter. During the war, his expertise had been anti-typhus work. Outbreaks of the disease in the army made finding a vaccination a high priority. Because typhus culture cannot live outside a body, it was kept alive by injecting it into prisoners.
Once injected with the disease, the prisoners could then be used to try out the vaccines to see if they worked, and Mückter’s experiments were reportedly carried out in Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Grodno as well as at Kraków. Responsible for the deaths of hundreds of prisoners, Mückter was wanted at the end of the war by the Polish authorities, but he was lucky: caught by the Americans, he had the Iron Curtain drawn across his past. And Grünenthal offered him an opportunity to continue his work.
As the company’s chief scientist and head of research, Mückter was credited with the development of thalidomide, and given that he earned hefty bonuses on the drug, its initial popularity made him very rich.
The “chemical brains” behind thalidomide may have been Mückter’s mentor, Prof Werner Schulemann of Bonn University, according to Martin Johnson, a longtime campaigner at Britain’s Thalidomide Trust. Schulemann had developed the first synthetic antimalarial drug and carried out human experiments in field hospitals and in the camps.
But it was Mückter’s work on anti-typhus vaccines trialed in the camps that Johnson believes may provide the link to thalidomide, a line he is pursuing for the book he is writing on the thalidomide story, provisionally titled The Last Nazi War Crime. “I thought I would be ready for publication a long while back,” he says, “but new information keeps arriving.”
But time may be running out in the hunt to find the hard evidence to establish that thalidomide was developed or trialed in the death camps — a hard link that would surely embarrass Grünenthal into giving full compensation to its victims around the world.
What is clear, though, is that the recent apology is not enough. Trapped for eternity in her bronze confinement, the statue of the sick child is haunting, her silent scream reminding us of the pain of the thalidomide babies.
* ©Newsweek Survivors’ battle continues
IRISH thalidomide survivors have begun a legal battle against the State. Survivors of the drug that caused foetal damage and lifelong disabilities said they need extra medical care having reached their 50th birthdays — a milestone they never expected to achieve.
The Irish Thalidomide Association (ITA) said it has significant legal concerns relating to the original 1975 compensation arrangement reached with their parents when they were children.
The drug was taken by some women and there are 32 surviving Irish children who were born with birth deformities as a result.
The group accused Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, and Health Minister James Reilly of “weaseling out” of pre-election promises to meet their demands.
In 1975, thalidomide children in Ireland received modest lump sums of between €5,000 and €20,000 and monthly payments of between €32 and €90.
The ITA has received legal advice on the fairness, appropriateness, and adequacy of the payments as the offer was never approved by the High Court.
ITA chairwoman Maggie Woods, who celebrated her 50th birthday in July, began litigation by lodging her application with the Injuries Board. Ms Woods said the original 1975 settlement was made on the basis survivors would not survive into adulthood, never mind reaching 50. “I am still here fighting for justice,” she said.
ITA committee member Dr Austin O’Carroll said all discussions with the Government and ITA had ceased. He said ITA had 25 members and all of them would lodge individual applications with the Injuries Board.
The ITA last met with Mr Reilly a year ago when he offered a medical review of the needs of the 32 Irish survivors, but not on a statutory basis.
Dr O’Carroll said the original settlement never took account of their health deteriorating and was derisory.
Irish thalidomide victims also rejected the apology from the German company which invented the drug earlier this year.
Grünenthal chief executive Harald Stock said the company had failed to reach out “from person to person” to the victims and their mothers over the past 50 years. “Instead, we have been silent and we are very sorry for that,” he said.
ITA described the apology as meaningless. “Grünenthal have issued an apology while saying they did no wrong, this is meaningless. The Irish Government have compounded this by refusing both an apology and an acknowledgment of wrongdoing when they failed to have proper regulation of drugs and failed to remove the drug from the shelves for almost a year after all other countries had removed it.”
The Irish Thalidomide Survivors’ Society also rejected the apology. “An apology will not give us back our childhood, or wrap full-length arms around our children or grandchildren to console them when they are crying. It will not act as a painkiller when we are awake at nights suffering horrendous pain that no painkiller can cure. It cannot give us dignity when our spouses and personal assistants need to help us change our clothes use the toilet or have a bath.
“For some it will not allow us to have a normal basic social, lads’, or girls’ night out without a mammoth planning exercise. It will not provide the finances to adapt our homes, our cars or even have our clothes made to suit... It can not get or provide us with wheelchairs or any other helping tools to stop more deterioration in are bodies.”
An Australian woman whose daughter won a multimillion-dollar settlement in July against Diageo plc, the legal successor to thalidomide’s Australian distributor, said the apology was an insult. “It’s the sort of apology you give when you’re not really sorry,” Wendy Rowe said.
Lynette Rowe, now 50, was born without arms or legs after her mother took thalidomide for a month while pregnant. Her lawyers said Grünenthal did not contribute to the settlement. LEIGH’S DETERMINATION TO OVERCOME OBSTACLES SHOWS THAT ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE
Born without arms or legs due to thalidomide, life could have turned out very differently for Leigh Gath. From growing up in a working class family in Northern Ireland, to life in Texas and back again, her book, Don’t Tell Me I Can’t, shows how true grit can make anything possible.
Through support of family and friends, as well as sheer determination, Leigh overcame prejudices, lived through the Troubles, escaped life with an alcoholic husband while raising two children, only to find love again with Eugene Gath, a lecturer at the University of Limerick.
Just over a week ago, Leigh, a member of the Leaders Alliance campaign group for people with disabilities, was instrumental in forcing a climbdown by the Government on proposed cuts to allowances and personal assistants. But, as she puts it, “we won the battle fair and square but the war is not over, and if we don’t keep up the pressure, they will target us again for more cuts. We have already lost 15% of these allowances and we simply cannot take any more cuts. There is no wiggle room left.”
Because she was born in the North, Leigh comes under the British government’s programme for thalidomide survivors. Unlike her husband, Eugene – who also lives with a thalidomide condition — she gets a special health grant, part of a pilot project which she hopes will soon be made permanent.
“It makes a great difference,” she says. “It doesn’t make me rich or anything, of course, but it does help a lot. What you get depends on the level of your disability. It means that if you need to buy equipment, make modifications to your home, or pay for something extra, the money is there for it.”
Also in the UK, there is a database of doctors with an extensive knowledge of thalidomide conditions whereas here there are still many GPs unaware of them. She acknowledges, though, that the Irish health service is superior in some ways to that in Britain. “I get extreme neck and shoulder pains, but the HSE provides me with a massage three or four times a year and that keeps me off those drugs. If I lived in the UK I would not be entitled to that and I would probably end up on massive doses of pain killers.
“We all have used and abused our bodies just to be able to live. My neck is as it is because when the children were babies I had to pick them up by the front of their clothes with my teeth. I was a single parent at the time, so I didn’t have much choice about it.”
— Dan Buckley Home