A “wonder drug” sedative called Thalidomide was mass distributed around the world in the late ’50’s and early ’60’s by the German pharmaceutical Grünenthal, whose owners had Nazi connections. Thalidomide was aggressively marketed as totally non-toxic and claimed to be completely harmless for pregnant mothers experiencing morning sickness. In reality it killed and malformed thousands of babies, many were born with short arms or legs, or no arms or legs at all, many were blind or deaf, or had severe damage to their brains or organs.
Grünenthal finally and reluctantly withdrew Thalidomide from the market in November 1961, after the German newspaper “Welt am Sonntag” published a pediatrician’s report linking the drug to an epidemic of malformed babies. The article was titled: “Mißgeburten durch Tabletten?”, which translates to: “Freaks because of pills?” It says a lot about the times that the paper would use the word “Mißgeburt” (“freak”) when referring to malformed babies. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, having a child with a disability was virtually never spoken of. Many parents were left to feel ashamed, as if it was their fault. Years later mothers and fathers of Thalidomide children around the world would tell similar stories of how hospital staff and midwives reacted to the birth of their deformed babies: mostly silent, few words of sympathy or consolation, and frequently a suggestion they put the children into foster care as soon as possible. Parents would also later describe taunts and looks from neighbours and friends. Their own neighbours would tell their kids not to play with the “deformed” child down the street.