Known as the first doctor in Germany to recognize the connection between Thalidomide and pediatric limb malformations. Dr. Widukind Lenz devoted his life to advocating for survivors of Thalidomide. Dr. Lenz, the son of controversial geneticist Fritz Lenz, became involved in the Thalidomide catastrophic scandal in 1961.
At the time he was a lecturer at the Hamburg University Hospital and a senior physician at the University’s Children’s Clinic in Hamburg. There he had seen a few babies born with malformed limbs during the first half of 1961, but at the time believed those deformities were caused by gene mutations. The course of the Thalidomide story dramatically changed in June 1961, when a young couple, the Schulte-Hillens, came to see Lenz and asked him to have a look at their six-week-old baby, born with two short arms and missing fingers. First the Schulte-Hillens believed their son’s deformity was caused by a gene mutation. Maybe it was something that ran in the family. Only a few weeks earlier Carl-Hermann Schulte-Hillen’s sister had given birth to a daughter with similar deformities. But then they started to ask around. When they heard about several more cases, the Schulte-Hillens came to the conclusion there must be another reason.
Lenz was alarmed. He knew that the accumulation of so many cases in such a short time was highly unusual. The pediatrician started his own investigations and eventually teamed up with Carl-Hermann, who had just started his career as a lawyer. They drove around all over Northern Germany in the Schulte-Hillen’s ragged old Volkswagen, looking for more babies, which turned out to be more difficult than they thought. At the time disabled children were often hidden away and not talked about. That’s why Carl-Hermann always carried a photo of his son Jan with him.
Watch Linde and Carl-Hermann Schulte-Hillen’s story
When they found a family with a malformed baby, routinely Lenz would ask if he could have a look at the medicine cabinets. And in every one of those he found a Thalidomide containing product. Finally Lenz was able to make the connection.
On November 15, 1961, he called Chemie Grünenthal to share his suspicions regarding the drug and the link to limb malformations in newborns. He spoke to Dr. Mückter, Grünenthal’s medical director, and urged him to take the drug off the market immediately. Lenz now had 14 cases of babies born with deformities which he strongly believed were directly connected to Thalidomide. Mückter vehemently refused to withdraw the drug. Luckily Lenz wouldn’t be put off and went public with his suspicions. It was only after the press got hold of the story that Grünenthal decided to withdraw the drug, on November 27, 1961.
By 1968 Dr. Lenz was a professor at the institute for human genetics in Münster. He was called as an expert witness in the indictment of Chemie Grünenthal. (Carl-Hermann Schulte-Hillen was one of the lawyers who represented the Thalidomide children and their families as co-plaintiffs during the trial). Lenz’ testimony was later dismissed and cited as too biased.
After Grünenthal had reached an out of court settlement with the German judiciary in 1970, the trial was suddenly suspended before coming to a conclusion. The prosecution and the co-plaintiffs hadn’t even put their case fully forward.
Dr. Lenz continued his work in identifying Thalidomide-related cases and was crucial in many presentations on survivors behalf for financial retribution around the world, including the Lynette Rowe case in Australia in 2012. Dr. Lenz passed away in 1995.