Thalidomide apology insulting, campaigners say

Bronze statue symbolizing a child born without limbs because of thalidomide The bronze statue of a child born with thalidomide symptoms is on display in Stolberg, Germany

Related Stories

The company which invented thalidomide has "insulted" those affected by the drug by issuing an "insincere" apology, campaigners have said.

The drug, sold in the 1950s as a cure for morning sickness, was linked to birth defects and withdrawn in 1961.

German-based Gruenenthal has issued its first apology in 50 years, but said the drug's possible side-effects "could not be detected" before it was marketed.

But the UK's Thalidomide Trust said any apology should also admit wrongdoing.

Nick Dobrik, a member of the trust's national advisory council, said it "should be an unreserved apology, not a conditional apology".

Within months of thalidomide first going on sale in Germany, doctors were writing to Gruenenthal asking about side effects that were appearing in their patients.

The company's stock response was to say it was not aware of side-effects and that these must be down to the individual patient.

The company muffled the alarm bells - its apology now is next to worthless. It changes nothing about the company being negligent in putting the drug on the market.

Gruenenthal also tried, and almost succeeded, in dragging the legal process past the German statute of limitations to escape responsibility.

Almost everything that Gruenenthal has done relating to thalidomide has been absolutely disgraceful.

"We feel that a sincere and genuine apology is one which actually admits wrongdoing. The company has not done that and has really insulted the thalidomiders."


Martin Johnson, the trust's director, told the BBC that the news that the manufacturers were starting to acknowledge responsibility was welcome but they were still trying to perpetuate the myth that no-one could have known of the harm the drug could cause when there was, he said, much evidence that they did know.

And Freddie Astbury, president of Thalidomide UK, said: "It's taken a long time for them to apologise. There are a lot of people damaged by thalidomide struggling with health problems in the UK and around the world.

"So we welcome the apology, but how far do they want to go? It's no good apologising if they won't open discussions on compensation. They've got to seriously consider financial compensation for these people."

By the time the drug was pulled from the market, more than 10,000 babies worldwide had been born with a range of disabilities caused by the drug.

This included shortened arms and legs, blindness, deafness, heart problems and brain damage.

There are between 5,000 and 6,000 sufferers still alive. Thalidomide UK says there are 458 people in the UK who were affected by the drug, but that for every thalidomide baby that lived there were 10 that died.

Harald Stock, Gruenenthal's chief executive, issued his company's apology at the unveiling of a bronze statue symbolising a child born without limbs because of thalidomide.

"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," he said at a ceremony in the western German city of Stolberg, where the firm is based.

"We ask that you regard our long silence as a sign of the shock that your fate caused in us."

Thalidomide timeline

  • 1953: Drug created in Germany by the Gruenenthal Group
  • 1958: Thalidomide is first licensed for use in the UK
  • 1961: Australian doctor William McBride reports an increase in deformed babies being born at his hospital to mothers who had taken thalidomide
  • Drug is withdrawn later that year
  • 1968: UK manufacturers Distillers Biochemicals Limited (now Diageo) reaches compensation settlement following a legal battle by affected families
  • 2005: Diageo doubles its compensation payouts from £2.8m to about £6.5m a year
  • 2008: The drug is approved for the treatment of multiple myeloma - bone marrow cancer - by the European Medicines Agency
  • 2009: UK government agrees a £20m grant, to be paid to the Thalidomide Trust over three years
  • 2010: UK health minister Mike O'Brien makes a formal apology to thalidomide survivors on behalf of the government

Mr Stock said the company regretted that the potential for thalidomide to affect the development of foetuses "could not be detected by the tests that we and others carried out before it was marketed".

Class action

BBC science correspondent for the Today programme, Tom Feilden, said one of the main issues was what Gruenenthal knew about the drug's side effects, when it knew about them and whether the company could have acted sooner in withdrawing it from the market.

Some compensation has been paid, particularly by thalidomide's British distributor.

Gruenenthal itself has previously paid compensation to survivors of the drug, many in Germany, and has voiced regret over the issue - but has not admitted liability.

In the early 1970s, it agreed to pay 100m Deutschmarks (£40m) into an official fund for German thalidomide survivors and was given permanent legal indemnity by the German government.

Since the original fund money ran out, continuing compensation payments have been made by the government. In 2009 the company added a further 50m euro (£39.6m) one-off endowment.

Compensation claims are still outstanding, including one key class action in Australia, which saw thalidomide survivors win the right to have their case for compensation heard there.

The drug is still used today under strict controls to treat some bone marrow cancer patients.


More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 266.


  • rate this

    Comment number 265.


    I know what i mean, the ideology of "i'm alright jack."

  • rate this

    Comment number 264.

    Your politics are all over the place BBC readers, left-wing where it suits you, right-wing where it suits you.

    You mean independently-minded free-thinkers, rather than followers of dogma.

  • rate this

    Comment number 263.

    To those who keep saying it was an accident, is waiting for the victims to die before admitting responsibility an accident too? Is this faux apology that stops just short of admitting liability also an accident?

    The way they behaved and have continued to behave AFTER the facts were known is their responsibility entirely.

  • rate this

    Comment number 262.

    256 + 260 + 261

    They were specifically told that there wasn't enough evidence over safety at the time, this was not a safe drug but kept pushing and pressurising. I guess it all comes down to individual conceptions of whether all human beings are considered equal..

  • rate this

    Comment number 261.

    it was lack of knowledge that was the problem not wilful neglitence. It was not known that stereo isomers behaved differently in the body. A chemical compound can be right or left hand and changes in production changed the character of the drug as can crystalline structure..

  • rate this

    Comment number 260.

    It's easy to moan about it BUT it was 62 years ago and the world has changed. They didn't have the internet; they didn't even have bulletin boards. And in a world where a simple apology means an unreserved admission and a following quest for cash I think it's worth something.

    I doubt anybody meant this to happen and I doubt anyone understood the risks. Lets hope history doesn't repeat itself.

  • rate this

    Comment number 259.

    This rejection of the apology is a stand for equality: everyone should have the same rights to blame and sue someone for their misfortunes.

    The next targets will be the GPs who prescribed thalidomide and their parents for taking it because there MUST be someone to blame.

    Or maybe it was just a tragic accident and the apology should be read and accepted in that context.

  • rate this

    Comment number 258.

    Unicron I and many others here agree with you the profiteering drug manufacturer should pay, as should all entities responsible for letting the drug loose on Europe and the UK.

    In any discussion if you actually find a large majority stating a similar line of thought it's likely they have given it little or no thought at all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 257.

    I am doing a biochemsitry degree. The problems couldn't be identified before hand, as the structure of molecules wasn't understood properly. It actually change our understanding of molecular structure.

    I feel deep simpathy for the people effected, but it was an accident and, while the company should pay compensation, it didn't actually do anything wrong.

  • rate this

    Comment number 256.

    253 Al Gore
    "Surely an example should have been made of these evil men, if we sincerely want to prevent anything like this from ever happening again?"

    You do realise thalidomide was over 50 years ago, don't you? And that due to lessons learnt from it, nothing remotely similar has happened since, at least not on such a scale.
    You're a bit late with your advice.

  • Comment number 255.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 254.

    I find it bizarre so many people here defending the company that made this drug, the BBC crowd are a fickle lot, pro-NHS, Pro-royalty, anti-religion, pro-big-pharma, Thalidomide victims should now just accept their injuries without further complaint after this lame mockery of an apology?

    Your politics are all over the place BBC readers, left-wing where it suits you, right-wing where it suits you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 253.

    What happened to those that put pressure on Frances Kelsey to approve thalidomide despite, as she noted, the lack of research as to whether it could cross the placental barrier?

    Surely an example should have been made of these evil men, if we sincerely want to prevent anything like this from ever happening again?

  • rate this

    Comment number 252.

    From the article (

    "In 1957 a West German company, Chemie Gruenenthal, launched their new “wonder drug” Contergan (thalidomide), a sedative that promised to take the market of the ‘50’s by storm [15]. Chemie Gruenenthal was a family owned and market driven business, formed in 1946."

    You just can't be paranoid enough about ex-Nazis.

  • rate this

    Comment number 251.

    @ 249

    Entirely agree. Editor - your job is to reflect opinion, not try to change it. Should nor have to point this out to you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 250.

    Thalidomide's inventor is unknown. The known drug, claimed as his invention by medico Kunz, was rushed to market in 1957 for personal gain. See the excellent history (

    "Dr. Heinrich Mueckter, was a Third Reich medical scientist with Wilhelm Kunz... Mueckter and Kunz were entitled to profits from any new drug they developed."

    No apology by Kunz.

  • rate this

    Comment number 249.

    The editing is biased.Despite many informative posts only the "Gruenenthal are evil" ones are picked.
    What about how Thalidomide is lifesaving in myeloma,how the company already paid compensation,that monitoring for drug complications wasn't there in the 50s,or that 60 yrs on none in the company being complained about had anything to do with it?And why aren't posts racist against germans removed?

  • rate this

    Comment number 248.

    Companies do not invent ANYTHING people do. Who is the inventor(s) and what does she/he have to say about what has happened to those injured?

    The company, especially a German company is a monster interested only in monetary gain and self-aggrandizement


    Wierdest things I have every read - congratulations! Can a company - an artificial legal entity, be 'interested' in anything?

  • rate this

    Comment number 247.

    They'll be sponsoring the paralympics next.


Page 1 of 14


More Health stories



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.