Health: Remembering the Thalidomide Scandal

The Story:

About sixty years ago, on both sides of the year 1960, an apparent medical advance went terribly wrong. This was the thalidomide disaster, and it is worth remembering in 2020 when there is a powerful political demand for a new vaccine, and a demand that it be readied quickly.


The drug “thalidomide” was first marketed in West Germany, beginning in 1957, for anxiety, insomnia, and the morning sickness associated with pregnancy. It was soon marketed in the UK by Distillers Co., Ltd. and in the US by Smith, Kline, & French, the precursor of the company now known as GlaxoSmithKline.

By late 1959 there were reports in several countries of serious birth defects and infant deaths traceable to the use of the drug as a morning-sickness treatment. Estimates are that 2,000 children died and 10,000 sustained non-fatal abnormalities due to this drug. The drugs were taken off the market after an enormous public outcry in the early ’60s.

The Thing to Know:

The thalidomide scandal resulted in tougher regulations of the testing and marketing of pharmaceuticals in several of the affected nations. In the US it produced the Kefauver Harris Amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act. It is worth remembering that the regulations, the “red tape,” which is sometimes blamed for slowing down breakthroughs, did not come from nowhere.

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