Thalidomide
Swiss National Councillor Christian Lohr was born with disabilities due to a drug based on thalidomideReuters

Filmmakers Harvey and Bob Weinstein have bought the rights to remake an award-winning documentary Attacking the Devil: Harold Evans and the Last Nazi War Crime. The movie links the development of the drug, which caused deformities in unborn children in the 1960s, with a Nazi scientists.

Attacking the Devil links the development of the drug with the Nazis through an official who was ordered by Hitler to find an antidote to sarin gas. The official went on to work at Chemie Grünenthal, the German company that developed thalidomide after the war.

Dr Henrich Mückter, was a chemist in charge of research at Chemie Grünenthal, and was a medical officer during the Nazi occupation of Poland. He had been a member of the Wehrmacht Betreuungs Kompanie 14 in Grodno from Spring 1942 to December 1942.

There is no direct evidence that he was party to any of the medical experiments conducted by the Nazis. However when questioned in 1968, he confirmed the Jewish workforce had been used in the facilities to fight lice, but he could not give any information about their subsequent fate or whereabouts.

Nazi's final horror

"It is now appearing increasingly likely that thalidomide was the last war crime of the Nazis," said Martin Johnson, director of the Thalidomide Trust. Among the new evidence presented by Johnson is an internal document proving that Grünenthal purchased the trade name for thalidomide (Contergan) from Rhône-Poulenc, a French company controlled by the Nazis during World War II. Johnson notes that Rhône-Poulenc registered 14 chemically similar drugs after 1942 ending in the unique suffix "-ergan", and that thalidomide falls easily into that category.

"Not only is the name typical of the Rhône-Poulenc brand names of the 1940s; the action of thalidomide also belongs among this range of products," the report reads.

Johnson added that Grünenthal's 1954 patent on the drug sugged that human trials had already been carried out, but no documentation exists that this was the case.

"The patents suggest that thalidomide was probably one of a number of products developed at [the chemical laboratory] Dyhernfurth or Auschwitz-Monowitz under the leadership of Otto Ambros in the course of nerve gas research."

Former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, who exposed the thalidomide scandal in the 1970s, said: "I am not saying this drug was invented in the extermination camps, but [the firm that produced it] was a Nazi company and it showed a degree of irresponsibility which was quite staggering."

Thalidomide scandal

Thalidomide was first marketed in 1957 in West Germany under the trade-name Contergan. The German drug company Chemie Grünenthal developed and sold the drug. Primarily prescribed as a sedative or hypnotic, Thalidomide also claimed to cure "anxiety, insomnia, gastritis, and tension". It was also used against nausea and to alleviate morning sickness in pregnant women.

Thalidomide became an over-the-counter drug in West Germany on 1 October 1957.

Soon after the drug was sold in West Germany, between 5,000-7,000 infants were born with phocomelia: malformed limbs. Only 40% of these children survived.

Globally, about 10,000 cases were reported of infants with phocomelia due to thalidomide and only 50% of the 10,000 survived to adulthood. Those subjected to thalidomide while in the womb experienced limb deficiencies with undeveloped limbs. Other effects included deformed eyes and hearts, deformed alimentary and urinary tracts, blindness and deafness.

Thalidomide is still in use today as a treatment for some cancers and for treating effects of leprosy, under the brandname Immunoprin.