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THE scandal of thalidomide started to become public in 1959, sixty years ago.
The German drug company Chemie Grunenthal — part of the Wirtz Group — had launched the drug just two years before and as the tablets were prescribed for more and more pregnant women with severe morning sickness, the terrible consequences it would have for newborn babies and their parents started to become known.
Who were Chemie Grunenthal? Today we know that in the immediate post-war years this drug company had become a bolt hole for nazi chemists, some of them convicted war criminals and at least one of them a convicted mass murderer.
Perhaps we should not be surprised then when as the thalidomide scandal came to light the company demonstrated a total lack of any responsibility, guilt or ethics of any kind.
One of the worst of these nazi chemists was Otto Ambros. In the 1970s the German chemist served as chairman of Grunenthal’s supervisory board.
During the war he advised Adolf Hitler on chemical weapons. He was also involved in the creation of the nerve gas sarin and supervised the construction of an IG Farben factory at Auschwitz. Tens of thousands of forced-labour workers died under his rule.
Another former nazi chemist, Heinrich Muckter, never hid the fact that he built his career under the nazis. He boasted that he was Surgeon Major and deputy director for the Institute for Typhus and Virus Research in occupied Poland.
Muckter’s institute in Krakow was involved in deadly experiments on humans the SS conducted in various concentration camps. Muckter and his team were working on the development of a typhus vaccine, which was repeatedly tested on concentration camp inmates in Buchenwald and other places.
Typhus couldn’t be kept alive in petri dishes, instead prisoners were used as human breeding grounds in which to raise the disease.
The death figures of those inmates showed Muckter how well his vaccine was working. He fled Poland after the war and quickly found a new home at Grunenthal, where he became head of research.
Muckter was later credited with the invention of thalidomide and received a percentage for every single pill that was sold. The drug would make him a millionaire.
Even after he had been alerted about the dangers associated with thalidomide, Muckter did everything he could to make sure that his cash cow drug would stay on the market.
He died in 1987. He never took any responsibility for what he did at Grunenthal during the thalidomide era, nor for his involvements in the deadly medical experiments on humans during the second world war.
Other nazi scientists who came to work there included 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 should die. At Grunenthal, he was head of pathology at the time thalidomide was being sold.
Dr Ernst-Gunther Schenck was 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 in Germany after returning from 10 years as a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union. Grunenthal gave him a job.
Grunenthal also offered employment to Heinz Baumkotter, an SS hauptsturm-fuhrer, the chief concentration-camp doctor in Mauthausen and Natzweiler-Struthof, and from 1942 chief medical officer in Sachsenhausen.
Sentenced to life imprisonment by the Soviet Union, in 1956 he was returned to Germany, where he was employed by the Wirtz family at Chemie Grunenthal.
These and many other nazis, some of whom experimented on inmates at concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Buchenwald, found a friendly home in the laboratories of Chemie Grunenthal.
One German historian looking at a short list of Grunenthal staff from the early ’60s said: “It’s absolutely astonishing that a small company should have such a concentration of convicted war criminals on its staff, unusual even by the standards of post-war Germany.”
Grunenthal was a company which because of its staff’s nazi background was indifferent to suffering and believed that life was cheap. It was here that thalidomide was developed, produced and taken to market.
When the over-the-counter tranquilliser was launched by Chemie Grunenthal it was hailed as a wonder drug. The small German company was relatively new to pharmacology.
It marketed the drug 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 nontoxic antidote to morning sickness and sleeplessness — and it sold by the millions.
For nearly half a century, the privately owned company remained silent and secretive about the disaster it had created while still earning vast profits.
Even before its release, the wife of an employee gave birth to a baby without ears, but Chemie Grunenthal ignored the warning. Within two years, an estimated million people in West Germany were taking the drug on a daily basis.
By early 1959, reports started to surface that the drug was toxic.
Scores of adults suffered from peripheral neuritis damaging the nervous system. Chemie Grunenthal suppressed that information, bribing doctors and pressuring critics and medical journals for years.
Even when 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 the babies who survived.
Chemie Grunenthal was still far more concerned with amassing vast profits than with deformed babies and devastated parents.
Despite overwhelming evidence that thalidomide caused miscarriages and birth defects, Chemie Grunenthal fought to resist paying adequate, or indeed any compensation.
It was not until 1970 the company agreed to pay about £25 million into a fund for the victims. In return it was given permanent legal immunity in Germany.
When the fund monies ran out, the German government made compensation payments. In 2009 Grunenthal topped up the fund with a one-off £50 million.
Money aside, victims and their families had to wait more than five decades for an apology from Chemie Grunenthal. In 2012 the company’s new CEO, Harald Stock, finally issued an apology to the victims.
“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.”
Chemie Grunenthal was established by the devoutly Catholic Nazi Party members and twin brothers Herman and Alfred Wirtz. The company benefited from Hitler’s “Aryanisation” programme taking over two Jewish-owned companies, one of which made the Tabac perfume range Wirtz still sells to this day.
The Wirtz group employs 4,200 people worldwide and has revenues approaching a billion pounds, mostly from painkillers. Its perfume subsidiary, Maurer & Wirtz, include brands such as 4711.
In 2010 Grunenthal was found guilty of misleading and unlawful behaviour. The British Healhcare Regulatory Agency advised the authorities that it was concerned that Grunenthal was promoting its unlicensed medicine, Tapentadol, to health professionals.
These promotional activities included misleading comparisons with competitor pharmaceutical products and the deliberate pressuring of healthcare decision makers to make sure that the new Grunenthal product would be sold after registration.
Similar cases in 2007 saw Grunenthal found guilty of distributing misleading information on its pharmaceutical products to healthcare professionals.
Today sixty years on some three thousand thalidomide victims, including many in Britain, are still fighting for adequate compensation. The Wirtz Group is still making millions.
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