The Thalidomide Scandal – Key Points

From October 1st 1957 until November 27th 1961, Chemie Grünenthal (as the company was then called) produced and marketed the active agent Thalidomide under the brand name Contergan. The drug was especially effective against morning sickness, and was also released as a tested and non-addictive sedative and sleeping pill for pregnant women.

In 1957 Thalidomide came onto the market under the brand name CONTERGAN. The drug quickly became Germany’s most popular sleeping pill and sedative, and also enjoyed great commercial success abroad. Products containing Thalidomide were soon being sold by licensing partners in 46 countries. The targeted advertising of the product played a key role in this success, guaranteeing that the active ingredient was totally non-toxic and harmless.

But just two years after it appeared on the market, a neurologist warned of the danger of damage to the nervous system posed by long-term use of CONTERGAN. These warnings increased in number, demonstrating that the non-toxicity of the agent could not be scientifically substantiated.

So, in May 1961, Chemie Grünenthal applied to the regulatory agency responsible within the Nordrhein-Westfalia interior ministry, for a prescription requirement for Thalidomide, which came into force in August 1961. However this only applied in Nordrhein-Westfalia, Hessen and Baden-Württemberg; in all other parts of Germany CONTERGAN continued to be freely available in pharmacies.

From 1959 onwards, doctors and clinics noticed an accumulation of terrible deformities in newborn babies. But as there was no legal requirement to report birth defects, the true extent of the catastrophe did not immediately come to light. Nevertheless several scientists began looking for the cause of this increase. Initial speculation concentrated on the side-effects of the testing of atom bombs, which at the time was the subject of much discussion. But when it became clear that neither East Germany, Belgium nor Switzerland was affected by a similar wave of birth defects, atomic radiation was ruled out as a cause.

Widukind Lenz, a doctor in Hamburg, was the first to demonstrate the connection with Contergan – independently from his research, the same connection was demonstrated in Britain and Australia. By 1961 Grünenthal had been presented with 1600 warnings concerning defects which had been observed in new-born babies. But the medication remained on the market.

Widukind Lenz’s findings were in existence on 16th November 1961, but the drug was not taken off the market until the day after the publication of an article in the Welt am Sonntag newspaper on 26th November 1961.

The figures are inexact: Roughly 10,000 damaged children were born, around 4,000 of them in Germany. Up to 50% of them survive to this day. It is not known how many affected babies died before birth. Contergan was not released in the USA, following a trial phase during which several children were born with disabilities. Following a warning from the Swedish biochemist Robert Nilsson, East Germany did not even begin the licensing and marketing process.

The case came to trial: The main proceedings lasted from 18th January 1968 until 18th December 1970: Standing against the three public prosecutors and the chief prosecuting counsel (RA Karl-Hermann Schulte-Hillen) for the 312 joint plaintiffs, were 20 defence lawyers acting on behalf of the 9 (latterly 5) defendants. They were charged with premeditated or negligent physical injury and causing death by negligence.

The parents agreed to a compromise: They waived their claim for billions of marks’ worth of damages, and accepted compensation of 100 million marks. And they also agreed not to pursue further claims against Grünenthal.

On 18th December 1970, the 283rd day of the trial, the criminal proceedings against Grünenthal were brought to an end due to insufficient evidence of liability and lack of public interest (§ 153 StPO). The sum of money paid into the compensation trust ran out in 1987. All compensation is now paid by the German state.

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