April 19, 2010

Dark Remedy by Trent Stephens and Rock Brynner

Thalidomide. The word alone evokes horror from those who recall the epidemic of birth defects that swept the world in the early 1960s...

BOOK #: 19
CHALLENGES: We Didn't Start the Fire, 100+ Books Challenge, A to Z Titles
PUBLISHER: Perseus Publishing (c) 2001
GENRE: NF, History, Medicine, Health
FORMAT/PAGES: Hardcover/202
RATING: 3.5 Stars

This well-researched book tells the story of the rise and fall and subsequent rise of the drug thalidomide.

I have been trying all day to write a synopsis for this book but I can't figure out how to write one that is as perfectly succienct as the one inside the jacket flap, so here is what is written there:

Thalidomide. The word alone evokes horror from those who recall the epidemic of birth defects that swept the world in the early 1960s: Thousands of women took the "safe" new drug as a sleep aid or to relieve morning sickness only to find that their infants were born with stunted limbs, or sometimes no limbs at all.

In this riveting medical detective story, scientist Trent Stephens and historian Rock Brynner show how thalidomide rose out of the horror of WWII into the brave new world of utopian science. In the process, they introduce an unforgettable array of characters, including the former Nazi medical officer who developed the drug and the indomitable FDA official who prevented it from reaching American mothers. From an industrial lab in Germany to the White House Rose Garden, from a trial in the House of Lords to a Senate chamber, from a brewery in England to a Louisiana leper colony, Dark Remedy traces the epic journey of this most peculiar drug.

But thalidomide isn't just a drug with a past. Scientists are now finding it to be an indespensible medicine for those with rare, chronic, or life-threatening diseases--everything from cancer to rheumatoid arthritis to HIV/AIDS. Research of the drug could lead to alternative medicines that capture thalidomide's healing properties without its cruel side effects, or to new therapies entirely.

As you can see, a difficult book to summarize!

I had not heard of thalidomide before but found its history to be fascinating. The epidemic that occurred was devastating. I am surprised that I had not come across more documentaries or Discovery Health shows about it. Apparently the impact was not as devastating in the U.S. because of one FDA pharmacologist named Dr. Kelsey. He refused approval of the drug here because more study was needed (which, as a side note, made me slightly less grumpy that it takes the FDA so long to approve new drugs while they are available in Europe.) However, the drug was still distributed by the maker to doctors with the "warning" that the drug was still under investigation. Apparently, that warning was taken pretty lightly by some medical professionals because it still reached American mothers. Still, Dr. Kelsey did a lot to minimize the damage by not approving the drug at the time.

I Googled some pictures of birth defects that came as a direct result of thalidomide and it was so heartbreaking. Like the summary states, there were children born with extra toes and children missing arms and children with out legs, just a foot adjoined to the hip.

Reading about the epidemic and looking at these pictures, I found it ver interesting that this drug could possibly be used to treat cancers, macular degeneration, even AIDS. Apparently there is one scientist right now in the U.S. who is allowed to pursue thalidomide research. The drug has already been approved by the FDA to treat lesions associated with leprosy.

If you are interested in learning about the thalidomide epidemic, what seemed to be the trigger in the drug that caused the birth defects, and how it has become now an approved drug to treat some conditions, pick up Dark Remedy. It is a wordy book, but definitely well-researched and written as much for the layperson to understand as possible.

Have you heard of thalidomide before? Do you remember the epidemic? Do you know any stories about thalidomide? Please share in the comments! I'm interested!


  1. I know almost nothing about this drug - basically just that a bunch of people took it, and then it turned out to have these terrible effects. This book sounds fascinating!

  2. I am too young to remember the epidemic but it definately formed part of the cultural historical stories that I remember being told when i was a little girl. It would be wonderful to read this book as my knowledge doesn't go much beyond hearsay.

    Thanks indeed for sharing


  3. I remember hearing jokes about Thalidomide babies when I was in kindergarten or first grade--one was about using one for home plate because he had no arms or legs. When I asked what a Thalidomide baby was, my mother told me it was a baby born with birth defects because the mother took Thalidomide for nausea. Her moral to the story is "this is why you should never take drugs when pregnant, even if a doctor says it's okay."

    (Context: My mother cut down to three cigarettes a day when she was pregnant with me.)

  4. Being older than you, I can remember a classmate in elementary school who was a thalidomide baby. It is heartbreaking.

  5. I have never heard of this, either! How interesting. You would think this would be a subject of of Discovery Health show or something.

  6. As children of the sixties, my siblings and I count ourselves very lucky that our mother never had trouble sleeping or excessive morning sickness. But it's amazing how something that is so horrible in one way might be crucial treating something else.

  7. I had heard of thalidomide before. It is amazing to me how many drugs that were thought to be helping one thing ended up causing so many other problems. I can't imagine how these mothers felt. Even though it wasn't their fault they would have felt some guilt.

  8. Yes, I remember hearing of it and the name still induces a shudder.

    I often wonder what discovery in twenty years time will they make about drugs we take today? Was reading yesterday that taking one multivitamin a day was linked to breast cancer. I immediately cut down to one every two days. That'll fool the statistics!

  9. jennysbooks- I didn't know anything about it either!

    Hannah- I don't even remembering hearing any stories. Or meeting anyone it happened to. I'd be interested to, though.

    Jeanne- What a horrible joke! Kids are so cruel, aren't they? (On a side note: Humorous about your mom.)

    Kathy- I can imagine. I remember a classmate who had been in a fire and that was heartbreaking for me.

    Tasha- I know! I feel like writing them and asking where the heck the info is hiding!

    Lisa- Yes, it is lucky. I am very glad for you and your siblings. It is so strange that it could be helpful now.

    Kathleen- I know. I can't imagine what they must have felt and still feel.

    Susan- How are multivitamins linked to breast cancer??

  10. Rebecca, a study says there is a link between daily multivitamin and the incidence of breast cancer is all I know. Google brought me this: http://www.news.com.au/national/multivitamin-link-to-breast-cancer/story-e6frfkvr-1225855021929

    I think it's like all statistics - you find some studies that support a notion, and others that debunk it. The best we can do is try to live a healthy lifestyle and de-junk our lives, IMHO.


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