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The history of thalidomide

Thalidomide was originally developed in Germany in 1954 by the pharmaceutical company Chemie Grunenthal. It was used in the UK from 1958, commonly to treat morning sickness in early pregnancy. In 1961, doctors realised that the drug was the cause of severe congenital disabilities and it was withdrawn from sale.

Thalidomide in the UK
In the United Kingdom, the most commonly prescribed drug containing thalidomide was called Distaval, manufactured by Distillers (Biochemicals) Ltd. It was given for nausea in pregnancy, nervous tension, migraine headaches, and as a general sedative.

Thalidomide was described as completely atoxic - it was said to be almost impossible to take an overdose. Considered, therefore, a valuable drug, particularly for use in the geriatric field, it was exempt from purchase tax and available under the National Health Service. Distillers took it from the German manufacturers, Chemie Grunenthal in 1958 as a tried and tested product, not requiring research on their part.

Following reports of what amounted to an epidemic of births of malformed babies, and side effects of peripheral neuritis in adults in Germany, Chemie Grunenthal reluctantly withdrew the drug in November 1961 and Distillers followed suit in December of that year.

A UK Government warning was not issued until May 1962. Also, the drug was present in a number of medications, including some cough mixtures, but the labelling did not use the word thalidomide, so it inevitably remained in some home drugs cabinets. At least 20 children were born during and after September 1962 showing typical thalidomide impairments - more than nine months after Distaval was withdrawn.

The United States
The story of thalidomide in the USA is very different from the European experience. Fortunately, Dr. Francis Kelsey of the US Food and Drug Administration was more alert and would not accept that the drug had been adequately tested for manufacture and distribution there.

As a result, only about 20 malformed babies were born in America and these were as a result of limited clinical trials that were carried out. (Thalidomide and the Power of the Drug Companies, Sjostrom & Nilsson, 1972)

Professor Dr Widukind Lenz
In Germany, it was Dr Lenz who first raised the alarm about the damage that was being caused by thalidomide. At the 1992 UNITH Congress (UNITH is the international thalidomide society) he gave a lecture entitled -The History of Thalidomide-.

In the lecture he recalled the events that led to discovery of the link between certain birth defects and thalidomide, and the process by which the manufacturers were persuaded to withdraw the drug.

Professor Lenz also explained the findings of some of the studies into the types of malformation caused by thalidomide and how they related to the precise time in the pregnancy when the drug was taken. He also gave an outline of criminal court action and compensation judgements in a number of different countries.

Click here to read a transcript of part of the lecture.

Professor Dr. W. Lenz died in February 1995.

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