Thalidomide was invented by “Chemie Grünenthal”, a German family-owned drug company that was founded shortly after the end of World War II.
Grünenthal was headquartered in Stolberg, near Aachen, and was a spin-off of “Mäurer & Wirtz”, a business that had specialised in soaps and cleaning detergents since the 1840s. Hermann Wirtz, heir to the family fortune, took over running the soap business in 1930. In 1946 he became managing director of Grünenthal.
In the 1930s, as the Nazi party came to power in Germany, the Wirtz family took over two Jewish competitors. After the war, as they expanded into the pharmaceutical industry, they hired a number of former Nazis. One of them was Dr. Heinrich Mückter, who became Grünenthal’s head of research. During the war Mückter had served as deputy director for the “Institute for Typhus and Virus Research” in occupied Kracow where he and his team were working on a vaccine against typhus. The Nazi doctors used forcibly recruited Polish citizens and Jews from the Kracow ghetto for their human experiments. Experiments were also conducted on concentration camp inmates, in particular at Buchenwald. Mückter and his team counted the deaths associated with the experiments to determine how well their Typhus vaccine was working.