Still no shame for thalidomide cover-up
Harold Evans guardian.co.uk, Saturday 1 September 2012 16.58 EDT
Justice delayed is justice denied. We know that too well. But how do you wrestle with your conscience when the injustice you have perpetrated has destroyed the lives of children and left thousands of thalidomide victims still enduring pain and suffering, without adequate compensation? The German company Chemie Grünenthal, having denied justice for 50 long years, has now unveiled a bronze statue of a child born without limbs, and its chief executive, Harald Stock, says: “We ask for forgiveness that for nearly 50 years we didn’t find a way of reaching to you from human being to human being. Instead we remained silent.”
Actually, Chemie Grünenthal remains silent still on adjusting compensation for inflation and the dreadful effects on the victims – the men and women in adulthood, many now without parental support.
CG did not just remain silent. It brought forth the drug thalidomide on 1 October 1957, from very murky origins indeed. It licensed its manufacture worldwide as a safe sleeping drug for mothers in pregnancy. One of the licensees was the British whisky company, Distillers, which put “Distaval” on the market as a tranquilliser in April 1958 and marketed it until 1962. Chemie Grünenthal was reckless. It had not tested the effect on pregnant women or animals to see if it could cross the placental barrier. It ignored early warnings. The wife of one of its own employees had given birth to a baby without ears 10 months before it puts its poison on the market. It made no difference. Nor did warning signs of deformed births and nerve damage from Australia.
It produced sales leaflets for doctors stressing the drug’s safety. It engaged – bribed might be a better word – compliant doctors who vouched for it though they did not know how it worked. A testimonial appeared in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology signed by Dr Ray Nulson Cincinnati, Ohio.
Eventually, he gave evidence in Germany that he had not tested the drug on pregnant women at all and was not even the author of the article. It had been written for him by an employee of the renowned American company, Richardson-Merrell in Cincinnati, a CG licensee. And the employee, like others around the world, had relied on Chemie Grünenthal which had itself done no tests on the effect on a foetus .
And to crown this pyramid of infamy none of the public authorities was curious enough to know how it all happened. In Britain, thanks to Chemie Grünenthal’s connections with the Ministry of Health, and a lazy press, fed pap by the ministry, the truth did not come out. It would never have come out either had it been left to the legal profession who dealt with the litigation the desperate families were forced to start.
I well remember the astonishment in the Sunday Times when the Insight team began opening three suitcases containing CG’s own documents. They showed a reckless get-rich-quick mentality yet the parents’ lawyers had allowed themselves to be convinced they could not win 100% damages in court.
I have described some of this in My Paper Chase, but what is new to me is the depth of iniquity exposed by investigative work since, primarily by Jonathan Stone, a former solicitor with Lord Goodman’s firm, Goodman Derrick, working with Roger Williams. Stone has been a special adviser to the victims in various countries. He and Williams trace the origins of thalidomide to murderous experiments in second world war concentration camps and they name names. There is the Wirtz family, esteemed as philanthropists in the German town of Stolberg, the sole owners of the company, notorious for its pro-Nazi sympathies.
There is Heinrich Mückter (1914-1987), responsible for the deaths of hundreds of prisoners in typhoid experiments; there’s Otto Ambros (1901-1990), chairman of the supervisory committee when thalidomide was developed; there’s Martin Staemmler (1890-1974), who played a role in Nazi racial hygiene programmes; there’s the SS doctor Ernst-Günther Schenck, who experimented with medicinal plants; there are the US companies ready to forgive and forget in their postwar haste to get their hands on the chemical expertise.
But decency requires me to identify some heroes in the struggle for justice – the thalidomide victims, now in middle age, who continue to fight for others: Freddie Astbury, president of Thalidomide UK, who describes the CG apology without compensation as a disgrace; the Lords Jack Ashley and Alf Morris, who fought so hard for the victims in their lifetimes, and Labour’s minister of health, Mike O’Brien.
On 14 January 2010 O’Brien made a dramatic announcement in parliament. He apologised to the victims and their parents but he also committed the government to give £20m to the Thalidomide Trust.
In the light of all this, one can only repeat to CG the words of Joseph Welch examining Joe McCarthy: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”