Chemical legacies: Thalidomide in New Zealand

Susanne M. Klausen

William Osler once said ‘one of the first duties of the physician is to educate the masses not to take medicine’.[1] Tragedies have unfolded when physicians and pharmacists, wooed by pharmaceutical companies as to the wonders of their products, have not heeded this advice.

Created by the German firm Chemie-Grünenthal GmbH, thalidomide was one of many synthetic drugs created after the Second World War and marketed on a vast scale by multinational corporations diversifying their products from alcoholic drinks and cosmetics to pharmaceuticals. Sold under dozens of brand names, thalidomide was promoted for multiple uses, including as a sedative and a remedy for pregnant women suffering symptoms of morning sickness. The drug was widely marketed as ‘completely non-poisonous’, ‘safe’, ‘non-toxic’ and ‘fully harmless’.[2]  Instead, it led to a range of serious complications, among which the most notorious was severe birth defects. By late 1961, at least 10,000 living children from an estimated 46 countries suffered disabilities as a consequence of their mothers’ ingesting thalidomide. Further, commentators suggest ‘about 40 per cent of thalidomide victims died before their first birthday.’[3] This epidemic of terribly deformed babies has been called ‘the world’s worst drug scandal of all time.’[4] In late November 1961 Grünenthal withdrew the drug from sale yet it continued to be in circulation thereafter in some places.

In New Zealand, thalidomide was introduced to doctors and hospitals in 1960 and available until at least August 1962. The Department of Health reported that thalidomide was added to the drug tariff in 1961 and retail was restricted to chemists.[5] The New Zealand distributor was Distillers Company (Biochemicals) Limited, which sold thalidomide under five proprietary names: Asmaval, Distaval, Tensival, Valgis, and Valgraine.[6] After publication of adverse effects of the drug, manufacturers on 4 December 1961 recalled the drug in New Zealand.[7] Nevertheless, it took the Department of Health until July 27, 1962 – almost eight months – to issue an official a directive to destroy remaining stocks of the drug. It was still available until at least August 1962 when it was seized from chemists’ and hospital shelves under section 12 of the Food and Drugs Act. One inspector of health searching for the drug in chemists in Timaru, for example, removed six bottles of syrup and three containers with 128 tablets containing thalidomide. In the Otago health district the drug was found in a Dunedin hospital and more than 2,500 tablets were recovered from chemists’ shops.[8] Also in August 1962, the government prohibited the importation, manufacture, sale and use of thalidomide in New Zealand. Some pregnant women who feared they may have ingested what was by then nicknamed the ‘disaster drug’ in late 1961 or during the first half of 1962 awaited the birth of their babies with anxiety.[9]

It is not clear how many New Zealanders suffered birth defects caused by thalidomide. In 1974 six New Zealanders were awarded $490,000 as compensation by the Distillers Company (Biochemicals) Limited.[10] But there were others who waited decades for compensation. In 2010, forty-five New Zealanders and Australians reached a settlement with the British company Diageo, which bought Distillers in 1997, and in 2013 about ten New Zealanders and approximately 120 Australians who had not yet received compensation finally had a class action against Grünenthal and Diageo settled for $99 million NZD.

Doctors and pharmacists, to whom pregnant women looked for assistance, prescribed a drug with devastating consequences. One of the children affected, Barry de Geest of Oamaru, born with no arms and short legs, is now a successful businessman, public speaker, and advocate for the rights of disabled people. In his view, the pharmaceutical companies cannot evade their moral duty of compensation, though he says ‘They thought, “If we hold out long enough, they will all die.”’

[1] One of the first duties of the physician is to educate the masses not to take medicine, British Medical Journal, 17 Oct 2010
[2] J. Braithwaite, Corporate Crime in the Pharmaceutical Industry, Abingdon, 1983 and 2013, p.68.
[3] Dr W. Lenz, ‘The History of Thalidomide: Extract of a Lecture given at the 1992 UNITH Conference’, available at http://www.thalidomide.ca/history-of-thalidomide/, retrieved 27 January 2014.
[4]  J. Stone, ‘The Nazis and Thalidomide: The Worst Drug Scandal of All Time’, Newsweek, 10 September 2012.
[5] ‘Thalidomide Drug Being Recovered’, Otago Daily Times, 18 August 1962, p.3.
[6] ‘House Told Drug Names’, Otago Daily Times, 17 August 1962, p.5. Initially the Minister of Health, D.N. McKay, who reported the proprietary names in the House of Representatives, incorrectly included the brand Softenon in the list.
[7] ‘Drug Thalidomide Formerly Used Here’, Otago Daily Times, 28 July 1962, p.3; ‘Thalidomide Drug Being Recovered’, Otago Daily Times, 18 August 1962, p.3.
[8] ‘Hunt for Stocks of Thalidomide’, Otago Daily Times, 11 August 1962, p.1; ‘Little Thalidomide Expected in Search’, Otago Daily Times, 14 August 1962, p.5.
[9] ‘Thalidomide Nightmare’, The New Zealand Truth, 7 August 1962.
[10] ‘Thalidomide Children to be Paid $490,000’, Otago Daily Times, 24 July 1975, p.5.


Susanne M. Klausen: Department of History, Carleton University, Ottawa. Susanne conducted this research while visiting the History Department at the University of Otago as a William Evans Fellow.

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