A couple of days before Grünenthal took Thalidomide off the German market, the company’s senior leading employees came together for an emergency meeting. Hermann Wirtz wasn’t present. The founder and leading manager of the drug company, that manufactured and sold Thalidomide, couldn’t even be reached. He was out hunting.
Ten days earlier Dr. Widukind Lenz had contacted Grünenthal and asked them to withdraw the drug immediately as a result of his research into the drug. At this point Lenz had already identified 14 cases of malformed babies who he believed were directly connected to Thalidomide and went public.
Wirtz founded the “Chemie Grünenthal GmbH” in 1946 as a subsidiary of “Mäurer & Wirtz”, a family-run business specializing in soaps and cleaning detergents with a 100-year-old history.
After the Second World War there was a shortage of pharmaceuticals in Germany and Wirtz decided to get into that business. Thalidomide (or Contergan as it was known in Germany) was one of the early drugs created by their new company Chemie Grünenthal. The drug appeared to work as a sedative and so Grünenthal rushed the drug into full distribution and later marketed it for nausea as well as sleeplessness. It became a bestseller and generated huge profits. However, Thalidomide caused thousands of babies to be born with severe disabilities and, as a sedative, it caused severe and sometimes permanent nerve damage in adults.
Wirtz was in charge of the company at the time, meaning all internal documentation regarding Thalidomide would have passed his desk, including the reports on nerve damages and malformed babies. He also signed off on reports he received from the company’s internal legal department that warned him of impending costs of compensation payments from patients damaged by Thalidomide.
Even though Wirtz was one of the defendants in the Thalidomide trial (1968-1970), he always said he had done nothing wrong. At no time did he feel he had to intervene. In the end Wirtz never had to justify himself in front of the court. Before the proceedings started, the case against Wirtz was separated from the main trial due to his health problems. The trial ended without a verdict on December 18, 1970. Chemie Grünenthal voluntarily agreed to a compensation payment of 100 million D-Mark (about $30m CDN at the time) to survivors. Hermann Wirtz passed away in 1973. Today the Wirtz family is one of the richest in Europe and still runs the company worth billions of dollars.