The Thalidomide Apology: A Study in Corporate Accountability


New Hartford, CT: Headstone for Eddie, Georgie and Charlie 8/22/12

          ‘German drug firm makes 1st apology for thalidomide’  So reads the headline of an August 31 Associated Press story by Frank Jordans and Maria Cheng.[1]

           Gruenenthal Group‘s chief executive said the company wanted to apologize to mothers who took the drug during the 1950s and 1960s and to their children who suffered congenital birth defects as a result.

           “We ask for forgiveness that for nearly 50 years we didn’t find a way of reaching out to you from human being to human being,” Harald Stock said. “We ask that you regard our long silence as a sign of the shock that your fate caused in us.”

           Mr. Stock spoke in Stolberg, Germany, at the unveiling of a statue, ‘The Sick Child’, commemorating those whose hideously foreshortened limbs and twisted organs resulted from their mothers’ taking Thalidomide to sleep.

           Some victims, now in their 50s, don’t accept the verbal or statuary apology.  Based on what I’ve read, I agree with them.

 The Speech & Some Comments

           But, the ‘Speech on the occasion of the inauguration of Thalidomide-Memorial’ by Harald F. Stock, Ph.D., holds significant lessons on the state of corporate accountability, about its limits, its reality.

           Here, from the Grunenthal Group website, are the final two thirds of what Mr. Stock said.  Following each paragraph are my comments.

           On behalf of Grünenthal with its shareholders and all employees, I would like to take the opportunity at this moment of remembrance today to express our sincere regrets about the consequences of Thalidomide and our deep sympathy for all those affected, their mothers and their families. We see both the physical hardship and the emotional stress that the affected, their families and particularly their mothers, had to suffer because of Thalidomide and still have to endure day by day.

           Grunenthal settled a liability suit in Germany in 1972.  It has not admitted liability elsewhere.  The careful phrasing assigns blame to ‘the consequences of Thalidomide’ and acknowledges injuries suffered ‘because of Thalidomide’.  Had Mr. Stock substituted the company’s name for the drug’s, his remarks would ring truer.

 A Different World Today?

           He continued:

           The Thalidomide tragedy took place 50 years ago in a world completely different from today. The international scientific community, the pharmaceutical industry and governments, legislators and administrations have had to learn a lot from it. Throughout the world the tragedy influenced the development of new authorization procedures and legal frameworks, which seek to minimize the risks of new medicines for patients as much as possible.

           Fifty years ago, the world – whether defined literally or as Europe or Germany or multi-national corporations or the pharmaceutical industry – was not ‘completely different from today.’

           What’s most remarkable about the worlds of 2012 is how little they’ve changed in 50 years.  The paroxysm of deregulation of the drug industry in the US over the past 15 years – pushed by the industry – proves that, if nothing else.  Its success, I’d argue, proves how little of public benefit industry, government and ideologues learnt from Thalidomide.

           It stands noting that Mr. Stock is 44 years old.

 ‘The State of Scientific Knowledge’ Defense

           His speech continues:

           Grünenthal has acted in accordance with the state of scientific knowledge and all industry standards for testing new drugs that were relevant and acknowledged in the 1950s and 1960s. We regret that the teratogenic potential of Thalidomide could not be detected by the tests that we and others carried out before it was marketed.

           ‘Teratogenic’ refers to a substance’s ability to cause birth defects.  In this context – unveiling a statue of a profoundly deformed child looking to heaven – I categorize it as a ‘weasel word’, a Latin-derivation designed to conceal the obvious: the ‘relevant and acknowledged’ tests and their administration were inadequate.

           The child of the statue looks like the figure in Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ appealing to heaven and getting German bombs.  It also recalls the Thalidomide victims unheard pleas for compensation.

           Mr. Stock continues:

           Hence the drug was taken by many women who had no reason to imagine that it could seriously harm their unborn children. Therefore we want to address this message particularly to all the affected and their mothers. We realise that the mothers are carrying a heavy burden.

 The ‘drug was taken by many women’ because Grunenthal advertised and sold it over-the-counter in Germany.

           Sixty years earlier, at the turn of the 20th century, in like fashion Bayer promoted Heroin as a cough medecine in Germany and here in the US.  The linked advertisement shows Heroin paired with Aspirin, Bayer’s other great discovery of the time.  How different is our world from those of Heroin’s and Thalidomide’s launches?

 An Apology for Silence

           The maimed adults and their mothers still alive have borne their ‘heavy burden’ with no help from Grunenthal as Mr. Stock’s final three paragraphs acknowledge:

           We also apologize for the fact that we have not found the way to you from person to person for almost 50 years. Instead, we have been silent and we are very sorry for that.

           We ask that you regard our long silence as a sign of the silent shock that your fate has caused us. We have learned how important it is that we engage in an open dialogue with those affected and to talk and to listen to them. We have begun to mutually develop and implement projects with them, to improve their living situation and assist in hardship situations easily and efficiently. We will continue to pursue this path in the future.

           We wish that the Thalidomide tragedy had never happened. It is an important part of our thinking and acting – today as in the future.

           ‘Our long silence’: The equation of Grunenthal’s ‘shock’ with its victims’ and their mothers’ injuries is….

           The last paragraph feels personal, not collective or imperial as do much of these three paragraphs.  I sense a commitment on his part and an assumption of responsibility.

 Grunenthal’s Corporate Culture

           This break with 50 years of silence and denial must be particularly difficult in a company whose first sentence on its home page reads:

The Grünenthal Group is an independent, family-owned, international research-based pharmaceutical company headquartered in Aachen, Germany.

 It has just 19 shareholders, none of whose identities, not surprisingly, I found on its website.

           The company only dates to 1946, the year after World War II ended.  It launched Thalidomide in 1957 as an over-the-counter sleeping pill, whose problems, according to the company’s website, began appearing in 1961.

           From these facts, one can infer a corporate culture based on denial and defense extending through three-quarters of the company’s life.

Offer of Support for Living Expenses

           That makes the company’s remarkably candid website of at least as much interest as its somewhat grudging offer to support the living expenses of some Thalidomide’s victims.

           Grünenthal has decided to support individual persons affected by thalidomide

           This is aimed primarily at those who are suffering from very serious injuries.

           The support is implemented by assumption of costs for individual benefits in kind which financing is not accepted by social security funds….

 In no way is this an offer to pay damages, to compensate the victims or the mothers of their victims for their all too conceivable injuries.

 Grunenthal’s Responsibility

           Grunenthal have put on offer quite little very late.  Still, after closely reading Grunenthal Group’s website, I feel more ambivalent than I thought I would, more inclined to give its management some credit.

           Then I think about this paragraph from Grunenthal’s website:

           Contergan was available over the counter in West German pharmacies from 1957 onward. The active drug substance, thalidomide, was an effective sedative and helped to induce sleep. It appeared to be exceptionally well tolerated, was not habit-forming, and had little potential for misuse for suicidal purposes. The advertisements for the product reflected the contemporary state of knowledge among the expert community: “A moment replete with natural harmony makes us wish the seconds would expand. But it usually remains no more than a moment and a fleeting desire, because the restlessness once useful to the mind dominates us and causes us to roam. Contergan gives peace and sleep. This harmless medicine does not burden the liver metabolism, affects neither blood pressure nor circulation, and is well tolerated even by sensitive patients. Sleep and peace: Contergan….”

           Between now and the Super Bowl, we’ll see many, many ads as nauseating as this.  How much have the drug companies really learnt in 50 years?  How adequate is our ‘contemporary state of knowledge’ of the drugs relentlessly pushed on TV?

           And what possible justification can there be for not compelling a corporation to take responsibility – morally and financially – for the consequences of products they put into commerce?

           ‘Sleep and peace’, mothers and children, ‘sleep and peace.’



           1.  H/T: ‘Maker of Thalidomide Issues Apology’, Boston Globe, Sept. 1, 2012, p. A4, whose somewhat truncated version omits interesting material from the end of the AP story.