William McBride lives in Australia. Along with Widukind Lenz in Germany he first connected birth malformations to Thalidomide.
In May 1961 William McBride, a well-known and respected obstetrician, delivered a baby with malformed arms and severe damages to its inner organs in Sydney, Australia. The baby died shortly after birth. Over the the next few weeks two more deformed babies were be born to his patients. The obstetrician was on high alert. The injuries of those babies were almost identical. And why were there so many in such a short period of time? That’s when it dawned on him. The only thing the three mothers of those babies had in common was Distaval (the trade name under which Thalidomide was sold in Australia). McBride himself had prescribed it to them and to many other pregnant women before as part of a clinical trial he had been conducting for Distillers. In September 1960 salespeople from the Sydney Distillers office asked him if he could test the drug on his pregnant patients. McBride happily agreed. He was assured that Distaval was “absolutely safe and non-toxic”. When he first started to prescribe it, he was actually quite impressed with its effectiveness, especially when taken for morning sickness in pregnancy.
McBride’s enthusiasm for the drug quickly wore off after those babies were born in May and June 1961. He phoned the Distillers’ office in Sydney to inform them about his suspicions in early to mid-June. McBride made it clear that he believed Thalidomide might have the capacity to maim and kill babies. It is unclear who McBride spoke to that day. Distillers later said they never received such a phone call and therefore didn’t know about McBride’s concerns until much later.
While preparing for Lynette Rowe’s trial, lawyer Michael Magazanik learned that senior employees at the Distillers office in Sydney were in fact aware of McBride’s alarming suspicions around the middle of 1961. They regularly discussed the doctor’s concerns, often after work over a glass of whiskey. For many months they deliberately did nothing. They didn’t investigate, they didn’t follow up with McBride or the mothers of those three babies. The epidemic of malformed babies could have been stopped in the summer of 1961. Instead the drug stayed on the market. Pregnant women continued to take it, including Wendy Rowe. She was prescribed Thalidomide by her doctor at the end of June or in early July that year, when she was a few weeks pregnant with Lyn.
Unfortunately McBride didn’t follow up at the time with Distillers either, nor did he get in touch with London headquarters. He made some reproductive test on animals, but couldn’t find any abnormalities. And when other mothers in the test group who had taken Thalidomide delivered healthy babies in the following weeks, he started to doubt his initial conclusion.
But then things changed again in September 1961, when he delivered two more malformed babies. According to McBride, he phoned Distillers again in October 1961, informing them about the recent cases. He spoke to another Distillers salesman on November 14, apparently somewhat angrily saying he reported his suspicion several times before and didn’t understand why nothing had been done. Finally McBride concerns were reported to London and passed on to Grünenthal in Germany – around the same time that Dr. Widukind Lenz, the Hamburg pediatrician, had spoken to Dr. Mückter at Grünenthal headquarters.
McBride’s career had many ups and down in the years to come. Later on he clearly was seen as one of the heroes in the whole Thalidomide saga. That didn’t help him in the early 90s, when he was found guilty of scientific fraud in a non-related matter, which cost him his license for a time.