By Duane Jeffery
Daily Herald, September 26, 2012
(Duane Jeffery is an emeritus professor of biology at Brigham Young University.)
Most of us, I suspect, will remember thalidomide as the merciless deformer of innocent babies: children born without limbs or with mere malformed stumps where limbs should be. Some were deaf, some blind, some with unnamed deficiencies of nervous system function.
According to the Sept. 12 issue of the magazine Newsweek, the drug, confidently prescribed to women for morning sickness and inability to sleep, affected some 100,000 pregnant women, generating at least 90,000 miscarriages and at least 10,000 children born with deformities.
Families in the United States, we also will remember, were spared the brunt of this tragedy because the drug was never approved for sale in this country. Various accounts are given for the reason why, but they do not concern us today. What is ghastly is the connection of prominent Nazis to the development, sale and cover-up of thalidomide and its deadly effects.
Our story begins with the Wirtz family of Aachen, Germany. The family had for several generations run a chemical firm, mostly producing perfumes and home cleaning products. In 1939 when World War II broke out, the company was headed by a pair of twin brothers, both members of the Nazi party. The company thrived during the war and in 1946 established a new company, Chemie Grunenthal, to work on the development of medicinal drugs. And they hired a veritable "rogues' gallery of wanted and convicted" Nazi mass murderers -- mostly chemists who had experimented on prisoners in the death camps. Newsweek gives brief biographies of several of them.
Martin Staemmler, active in Hitler's racial cleansing program, was Grunenthal's head of pathology when thalidomide was marketed. Dr. Ernst-Gunther Schenck was the SS's inspector of nutrition. He experimented with a protein sausage, which he fed to some 370 prisoners. It was fatal for many.
The company also hired Heinz Baumkotter, who had been a high-ranking stormtrooper and was the chief doctor in Mauthausen and Natzweiler-Struthof, then in Sachsenhausen -- notorious concentration camps. Otto Ambros was one of the four inventors of the nerve gas sarin. (Sarin is a deadly gas, the production and storage of which was eventually forbidden by the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993. It should not be confused with Zyklon-B, the major gas of the Nazi gas chambers.)
Ambros had been Hitler's chemical warfare adviser and set up camps for producing nerve gas. He was eventually convicted for mass murder but served only four years in prison. He was chair of Grunenthal's advisory committee when thalidomide was developed and apparently very influential in covering up the history of thalidomide's development.
Grunenthal's head of research and chief scientist was Heinrich Muckter. He had worked during the war to develop typhus vaccines for the German army, carrying out experiments on prisoners at Krakow, Grodno, Buchenwald and Auschwitz. These reportedly caused hundreds of deaths. But he found post-war employment at Grunenthal and is credited with the major insights leading to thalidomide.
There may be a connection between Muckter's typhus work and thalidomide itself. That direct link at present appears to be suggestive but unresolved. Martin Johnson, a British researcher, is apparently hot on the trail of that connection, and it may well be the critical message in a book he has planned for the future, tentatively titled "The Last Nazi War Crime."
What is clear, however, is that Grunenthal and its Nazi coterie knew very early in the four-year marketing of thalidomide that it was incredibly dangerous. But they were marketing it in 46 countries and making loads of money. They bribed doctors and badgered medical journals and critics for years. Last month, the company's head finally apologized. Newsweek reviews the present (inadequate) state of remunerations to living victims, still suffering from the Nazis' barbarity.