cover image Wonder Drug: The Secret History of Thalidomide in America and Its Hidden Victims

Wonder Drug: The Secret History of Thalidomide in America and Its Hidden Victims

Jennifer Vanderbes. Random House, $28.99 (424p) ISBN 978-0-525-51226-4

In this mind-boggling horror story of pharmaceutical malfeasance, journalist and novelist Vanderbes (The Secret of Raven Point) profiles one of the most notorious drugs in history: thalidomide. In 1957, West German drug manufacturer Grünenthal began pushing a new miracle drug for a range of common ailments, including morning sickness, touting it as “completely atoxic, safe for everyone, children and pregnant women included,” despite scant data to prove these claims. By 1962, thalidomide “was revealed to have killed or disfigured more than ten thousand babies world-wide,” Vanderbes writes. Though FDA reviewer Frances Kelsey refused to approve it because of the lack of evidence of the drug’s safety, eventually forcing a change to the FDA’s nearly automatic patent approval process, thalidomide was still distributed to thousands of women throughout the country through an unprecedented maneuver by its U.S. distributor, the Merrell Company: doctors were enlisted “as clinical investigators” to “test” free and unmarked samples on their patients. Merrell escaped without a single legal penalty; the unwitting test subjects, many of whose children were born without limbs, were unable to prove they had been given the drug. Vanderbes sheds light on the cover-up, surfacing new documents and interviewing individuals involved who have never spoken on the record before. It’s a deeply researched and chilling must-read. (June)