“A shocking saga of pharmaceutical malpractice . . . Wonder Drug is both a first-rate medical thriller and the searing account of a forgotten American tragedy.”—Patrick Radden Keefe, author of Empire of Pain
A “fascinating and compassionate” (People) account of the most notorious drug of the twentieth century and the never-before-told story of its American survivors.
Longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal
In 1959, a Cincinnati pharmaceutical firm, the William S. Merrell Company, quietly began distributing samples of an exciting new wonder drug already popular around the world. Touted as a sedative without risks, thalidomide was handed out freely, under the guise of clinical trials, by doctors who believed approval by the Food and Drug Administration was imminent.
But in 1960, when the application for thalidomide landed on the desk of FDA medical reviewer Frances Kelsey, she quickly grew suspicious. When she learned that the drug was causing severe birth abnormalities abroad, she and a team of dedicated doctors, parents, and journalists fought tirelessly to block its authorization in the United States and stop its sale around the world.
Jennifer Vanderbes set out to write about this FDA success story only to discover a sinister truth that had been buried for decades: For more than five years, several American pharmaceutical firms had distributed unmarked thalidomide samples in shoddy clinical trials, reaching tens of thousands of unwitting patients, including hundreds of pregnant women.
As Vanderbes examined government and corporate archives, probed court records, and interviewed hundreds of key players, she unearthed an even more stunning find: Scores of Americans had likely been harmed by the drug. Deceived by the pharmaceutical firms, betrayed by doctors, and ignored by the government, most of these Americans had spent their lives unaware that thalidomide had caused their birth defects.
Now, for the first time, this shocking episode in American history is brought to light. Wonder Drug gives voice to the unrecognized victims of this epic scandal and exposes the deceptive practices of Big Pharma that continue to endanger lives today.
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.