The over-the-counter tranquilizer 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 nontoxic 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 the babies who survived….
…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 labor 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 U.S. 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. …