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Lawyer’s new book exposes thalidomide cover up

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Media Release

Published on

A new book by a Slater and Gordon lawyer, who helped win a historic $89 million compensation payout for thalidomide survivors, has exposed disturbing new information about how multiple opportunities to save thousands of lives were missed while the drug was on the market.

Michael Magazanik’s book Silent Shock, which will be launched tonight, contains disturbing new information about how both Grünenthal (the German company which invented the drug) and Distillers (licensed to sell the drug in the UK, Australia and New Zealand) were told that the drug might be maiming and killing unborn children but failed to respond.

Instead of investigating or suspending sales, both companies simply continued to sell more of the drug.

“This is the most powerful evidence yet uncovered of how negligence and deceit cost literally thousands of lives in the thalidomide disaster,” Mr Magazanik said.

“When apologists say that the whole thing was an unavoidable disaster - that's rubbish. There were repeated opportunities to cut the death and injury toll short - in Germany, in Japan, in the US and in Australia.

“If the men at Grünenthal and Distillers hadn't been so hell bent on profit at the expense of health and safety, things could have been very different.”

Thalidomide is thought to have maimed or killed at least 10,000 babies world-wide. It was sold between 1957 and 1962 as a sleeping pill and sedative but it also became popular for use in morning sickness.

In one of the revelations, the book details how in mid-1961 Dr Bill McBride, a Sydney obstetrician, told Distillers’ Sydney office that he believed the drug was responsible for malformations in three of his patients’ babies.

Distillers subsequently claimed that this information was never passed to senior managers at the company, and that it was not until the end of 1961, when McBride reported further malformed births (and deaths), that senior management became aware of the report and immediately withdrew the drug.

However as Silent Shock details, through an insider’s account obtained during the litigation, multiple senior managers at Distillers knew of the McBride report from mid-1961 yet did nothing to cut short the escalating death and injury toll. It details how Bill Poole, who led the Distillers thalidomide operation in Australia, sat on McBride's shocking report for five months, leading to thousands of avoidable deaths and injuries worldwide.

Instead of getting thalidomide off the market immediately, Poole kept promoting a drug he knew might severely damage fetuses to maternity hospitals and obstetricians. He also tried to get a government subsidy for thalidomide and steadily built up a stockpile ready to flood the Australian market: eight million pills in a Sydney warehouse, each one of which he knew might maim and kill unborn babies. When thalidomide was exposed, Poole lied constantly to cover up his behaviour, including to the highest levels of the Australian Government.

Distillers was far from alone in ignoring urgent warning signs. In Germany, Grünenthal and its staff got reports of malformations possibly linked to thalidomide in 1959, 1960 and 1961. It did nothing to investigate – it just kept selling more and more of the drug. In the wake of the disaster nine of Grünenthal’s senior staff were charged with negligent manslaughter.

Mr Magazanik, a personal injury lawyer and former journalist, said he was committed to exposing the full story of the thalidomide crisis.

“Over the three years that I worked on the thalidomide litigation, it became clear to me that this was an extraordinary story that needed to be told.

“Working together with Peter Gordon and his team at Gordon Legal, we amassed an incredible amount of information, including documents that had been buried in archives across the globe, as well as extraordinary human stories from survivors, their families, the medical profession and those who sold the drug. And of course there was the incredible story of Lyn Rowe, our lead Plaintiff, who was born without limbs in 1962.”

Lyn Rowe’s claim settled in 2012 for an undisclosed multi-million dollar sum, and the class action for about 100 other survivors settled in 2013 for $89 million. 

“The settlement was a massive relief to our clients who had been never been compensated for their injuries. But not going to trial meant that the full story of the thalidomide scandal had not been properly told.

“The Rowe family’s bravery and their dignity has been the inspiration for the book. That persuaded me that I had to write it.”

Slater and Gordon Lawyers and Gordon Legal conducted the class action.