Story transcripts

Bitter Pill

Monday, July 23, 2012

Reporter: Allison Langdon
Producer: Gareth Harvey

It was the greatest medical tragedy of all time — a so-called wonder drug for pregnant women that devastated thousands of lives.

Thalidomide was developed by German pharmaceutical giant Grunenthal in the 1950s and sold in millions of doses to an unsuspecting world. No one knows just how many babies died. But those that did survive suffered horrific birth defects.

This week brought dramatic developments in a story we've been following for months. And on Sunday night, in a special investigation, we reveal chilling details about the origins and creators of this evil drug.

Full transcript:

ALLISON LANGDON: Mary Henley-Callopy is on the road to see a lifelong friend, with whom she shares a tragedy. Mary was a child of the Thalidomide generation.

IAN: I think the ramps'll hold you.

ALLISON LANGDON: So was the woman who, almost from birth, became her best friend - Lynne Rowe.

MARY: I do remember that, so I wonder where the chairs were, that we sat on for that infamous photo.

ALLISON LANGDON: This photo was taken when the girls were just four years old.

MARY: I thought it was in the driveway, Lynne. Out the front, yeah.

ALLISON LANGDON: Today is a precious reunion for Mary, Lynne, and Lynne's parents, Wendy and Ian -all of them bound by the calamity of Thalidomide.

MARY: We had no special treatment really, did we? No kid gloves.

WENDY: No, just lots of TLC.

ALLISON LANGDON: For the Rowes, it's been a hard and often lonely road since the fateful day in 1962 when Lynne was born - a memory that is still raw.

WENDY: Usually when babies are born people are saying 'oh lovely, it's a girl; it's a boy', and there was just deadly silence and nobody said anything. And I remember thinking, gosh, she just looked gorgeous, and I thought well, we're just going to have to look after her, and love her, and deal with it, you know. But it was really hard.

ALLISON LANGDON: And this is where you brought Lynnie home 50 years ago? IAN: Yes, yeah.

ALLISON LANGDON: Ian and Wendy were never going to give up on Lynne - even when they were told she'd be lucky to survive six months.

IAN: We just ignored that, and just didn't ever think of anything else apart from we would go back and bring Lynnie home, yeah.

ALLISON LANGDON: Bring a little baby home.

IAN: Yeah, that's right, yes, yeah.

ALLISON LANGDON: All over the world in late 1950s and early 60s, the morning sickness drug Thalidomide wreaked its chemical curse on young mothers and their babies. It was created by the German pharmaceutical giant Chemie Grünenthal - a company that rose from the ashes of World War II. The effects of Thalidomide were horrendous.

WENDY: People used to walk on the other side of the road rather than look in the pram, because they were embarrassed and didn't know what to say, but that hurt us. But yeah, that was difficult.

MARTIN: We're looking at the world's biggest disaster of its kind.

ALLISON LANGDON: Dr Martin Johnson runs the British Thalidomide Trust. So this is all your Thalidomide files?

MARTIN: Yep.

ALLISON LANGDON: He's part of a worldwide campaign helping Thalidomide survivors.

MARTIN: Something like 80 percent to 90 percent of the women who took the tablets in early pregnancy lost their babies. Deformed babies were quietly being suffocated and, of the ones that were allowed to live, 75 percent of them haven't survived to now. So the death toll is vast.

ALLISON LANGDON: So this drug should never have made it onto the market?

MARTIN: Correct.

ALLISON LANGDON: For Mary, Thalidomide hasn't only meant a life of disability and pain, but a childhood spent in foster care.

ALLISON LANGDON: Your parents were advised to give you up?

MARY: Yep. My Mum saw me for two hours, and my Dad never saw me, so it was pretty lonely. It was very lonely.

ALLISON LANGDON: So this is the ritual every morning?

WENDY: This is the ritual, yes.

ALLISON LANGDON: For the Rowes, it's been half a century of 24-hour-a-day care, with no help, no compensation - not even an apology from Grünenthal. Now, as they near 80, it's only getting harder. So these are the kind of struggles you go through every day?

IAN: Several times a day. Every time she goes to the toilet.

WENDY: I get up two or three times a night. So yeah, all of those things as you get older take their toll I think, and it's why I'm so white.

IAN: And I've lost mine.

MARTIN: The shocking thing about Grünenthal is that it has been responsible for this worst of all disasters of its kind, and it is still afloat, and they have not even changed the company name.

ALLISON LANGDON: In fact, Grünenthal has grown into a billion-dollar company. Even more shocking, it has never been successfully prosecuted for the crime and the cover-up of Thalidomide. But that's all about to change.

SPOKESMAN: Thalidomide is of course the greatest pharmaceutical disaster in history.

ALLISON LANGDON: Just this week, the Rowes forced the Australian distributor of the drug to make a stunning admission of corporate responsibility, and promise of compensation.

SPOKESMAN: Every Australian woman who took Thalidomide in the early 1960s, including Lynne's mother, was swallowing Thalidomide made by Grünenthal at its factory in Germany.

ALLISON LANGDON: And the Rowes have Grünenthal in their legal sights.

KEN: They have never ever been taken on properly, and forced to recognise the damage they've caused globally. I think this is going to do it in a big way - bigger than they can imagine.

ALLISON LANGDON: Here in Australia, retired businessman Ken Youdale is helping coordinate the push for compensation - and it's personal. The World War II veteran's own daughter Niki was a Thalidomide child, who died nine years ago after a life of struggle.

KEN: Nicole was the most gorgeous little girl, and it was heartbreaking in every way. We just could not believe that this little girl had gone, and she was so strong up to that point. And it has to be one of the most callous and disgusting actions by a company I have ever known. And I think that they will be brought to justice, that's my view.

ALLISON LANGDON: But Grünenthal hasn't only turned its back on its victims - it's hidden a dark secret.

MARTIN: This is the first English-language patent for Thalidomide.

ALLISON LANGDON: And this to you was the smoking gun?

MARTIN: Absolutely.

ALLISON LANGDON: Dr Martin Johnson's investigations have revealed the company that unleashed Thalidomide on the world was founded and run by Nazis. Some of Adolf Hitler's most twisted medical minds worked for Grünenthal - men involved in mass murder and genocide.

MARTIN: The concentration of Nazi war criminals in Grünenthal, for a small company, is absolutely extraordinary. You've got people like Baumkötter, who sent tens of thousands of people to their deaths, Stemmler, who led the campaign to have disabled people exterminated, and Dr Otto Ambros – he was responsible directly for the deaths of many tens of thousands of people.

ALLISON LANGDON: All of these men were employed then by Grünenthal.

MARTIN: Not just employed by, but were running Grünenthal.

ALLISON LANGDON: And the driving force behind Thalidomide, Grünenthal's chief scientist - Heinrich Mückter - was a wanted Nazi war criminal. Mückter kept Thalidomide on the market for two years after its effects were known.

ALLISON LANGDON: How can any human being sit by and watch what their drug is doing to tens of thousands of people around the world?

MARTIN: We're talking about a group of people who had helped to make the Holocaust happen. So, we have a whole group of people whose mentality was to disregard normal human values.

ALLISON LANGDON: There is nothing worse you can say about a modern German company than what our evidence points to - a firm that offered safe haven and prosperity to some of the Nazis' worst war criminals. More chilling still to consider is the direct link between Grünenthal here in Aachen - and a place so terrible it almost defies belief - Auschwitz extermination camp. Our evidence suggests Thalidomide was invented here as an antidote to nerve gas, and probably tested on prisoners in this laboratory of human suffering.

MARTIN: I believe Thalidomide was developed in one of the chemical research labs at Auschwitz.

ALLISON LANGDON: So you believe it was a Nazi invention?

MARTIN: Absolutely, yeah.

ALLISON LANGDON: It's a cruel irony for Ken Youdale, who fought the Nazis in World War II.

ALLISON LANGDON: Their evil stretched so far as to harm your unborn baby.

KEN: Absolutely. Terrible.

ALLISON LANGDON: You could never have imagined that so many years later, that Nazi mentality came back and hurt your daughter.

KEN: No, of course not. I fought a war 'to make the world better', so to speak.

ALLISON LANGDON: We wanted our own answers from Grünenthal. We'd like to speak to someone about the role of Grünenthal in hiring Nazis to develop Thalidomide. So we went to the mansion of the Wirtz family, who still own the company.

EMPLOYEE: Mr Frank Schoenrock

ALLISON LANGDON: He will give us an interview?

EMPLOYEE: Yes he give you an interview.

ALLISON LANGDON: They guaranteed us an interview.

EMPLOYEE: I have called Mr Schoenrock - just a minute - and he has –

ALLISON LANGDON: He has agreed, he will talk to us?

EMPLOYEE: Yes.

ALLISON LANGDON: OK. But someone lied.

FRANK: Sorry, we are on a private property, so please switch off your camera, okay?

ALLISON LANGDON: Grünenthal's corporate spokesman is Frank Schoenrock. 15 minutes ago we were told that you would talk to us, on camera, by a Grünenthal employee. FRANK: I didn't tell you that and I -

ALLISON LANGDON: By the wife of Michael Wirtz.

FRANK: I am the spokesperson, right? So I said we are not able to give any interviews, so please go now out of the building. I am sorry for that.

ALLISON LANGDON: That's it, forced out the door?

FRANK: Please go.

ALLISON LANGDON: But there's compelling evidence that the Nazis developed Thalidomide and that Grünenthal covered up the horrendous side effects, that they knew what was going on.

FRANK: As I said, could you please go? Because this is a private property, I gave you our statement, you have it on camera, that's it. Please leave.

KEN: Take no prisoners let's make money - that's what counted. There's not one of the entire Grünenthal establishment that should be allowed literally to go free.

ALLISON LANGDON: Do you think justice is close?

KEN: I think justice ought to be close.

ALLISON LANGDON: And the Rowes are determined to bring Grünenthal to justice, and force the company that thrived while its victims languished to finally pay for the evil it did. But there is much that's good in Lynne's world. Friends and relatives have built her a specially-designed home for when her parents Ian and Wendy are gone.

WENDY: We want her to be able to live in a safe sort of house, with carers to come in and look after her.

IAN: Mmm, some of Lynnie's friends have had to go into aged-care accommodation and things like that. Well, we just don't want that to happen for Lynnie. She's - you know - she needs more than that.

ALLISON LANGDON: While this week's compensation settlement has finally given Thalidomide victims some hope, Grünenthal still won't help survivors like Lynne Rowe. Despite the damning evidence we have uncovered, the company refuses to acknowledge it has done anything wrong.

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