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The Shadow of Thalidomide

In the 1950s, thalidomide cut a wide swath of destruction across the world, leaving behind thousands of deformed infants, but that was only the beginning of the story.

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The Shadow of Thalidomide

Produced by Kit Roane

In the 1950s, thalidomide cut a wide swath of destruction across the world, leaving behind thousands of deformed infants, but that was only the beginning of the story.

When it was introduced in Germany in the late 1950s, thalidomide was supposed to be something of a miracle drug: a completely safe sleeping pill that could also treat a range of ills. But after it spread across Europe and the rest of the world, this chemical farrago proved to be something far more sinister – a poison of a sort, one that caused an untold number of spontaneous abortions and led to thousands of terribly deformed infants.

The United States was largely spared this medical disaster thanks to the tenacity of one woman, a young FDA reviewer named Dr. Francis Kelsey, who fought more than a year to delay the drug’s approval in the United States and ultimately prevented its release. The realization of how close America came to participating in the tragedy sweeping across Europe brought about regulatory reforms that held pharmaceutical firms far more accountable for the drugs they make.

But, as Retro Report found, this dark chapter was not the end for thalidomide. Decades later scientific inquisitiveness collided with luck to turn the once-infamous drug into a life-saving treatment for tens of thousands of patients in the throes of other painful and often deadly diseases. From leprosy to blood-born cancers, thalidomide is now a go-to drug. This salvation, however, continues to carry a human cost; the shadow of its past is being revisited today in places like Brazil, and victims say they continue to look warily toward thalidomide’s future.

For more information on thalidomide:

The Thalidomide Trust

International Contergan Thalidomide Alliance

Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada

United States Food and Drug Administration

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