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Jennifer Vanderbes on her book 'Wonder Drug'

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

In the 1950s and '60s, thousands of babies were born around the globe with shortened limbs. Their arms and legs looked like seal flippers, and they were often missing fingers and toes. They were called "thalidomide babies" after the drug responsible for those birth defects. Thalidomide was never approved for sale in the U.S., but it ended up in medicine cabinets here anyway. Jennifer Vanderbes tells the story of how that happened in her new book "Wonder Drug: The Secret History Of Thalidomide In America And Its Hidden Victims." She joins us now. Welcome to the program.

JENNIFER VANDERBES: Hi. Thanks for having me.

RASCOE: You know, we tend to think of, like, Big Pharma as something that's, like, happened more recently. But you write about how pharmaceuticals were the most profitable industry in the country in the 1950s. Like, were you surprised to find out, like, how big the industry was back then?

VANDERBES: I was. I mean, what I hadn't known prior to this project was that World War II is really this turning point for the industry, and the government subsidies that go into pharmaceuticals to sort of help win the war give this young industry a lot of infrastructure and a big boost that allow it to really take off after the war. But you don't have government regulations necessarily keeping up at that point.

RASCOE: It really felt like the wild, wild West back then. Like, especially, you know, you get the Food and Drug Administration finally created, but then it didn't seem like they were always that rigorous.

VANDERBES: Right. So the Food and Drug Administration really starts to get some worthwhile powers around 1938. The problem and the big surprise in this story is that there was a bit of a loophole in this idea that drug firms - so what they were supposed to do was run some human safety trials. What the drug firm that was interested in getting thalidomide on the market did was sort of turn that requirement into getting doctors interested in the drug while they were awaiting FDA approval.

RASCOE: That's how it got out to all these people. They were using it to kind of sell it and build buzz.

VANDERBES: Yes. And what this particular drug firm did was they used their salesmen - they were called detail men at the time. They send these detail men across the country, and they tell them to go and approach doctors on a scale that they'd never done before, right? Like, go into hospitals, look at the lobby plaque and find the name of the biggest doctor you can find. Go to them, tell them that you think they're so special that they should get this drug before FDA approval. Tell them that it's so safe that they shouldn't really worry about actually gathering experimental clinical data.

So these doctors take this information at face value. They get interested. They start handing it out to their patients for a variety of conditions and symptoms, everything from headaches to morning sickness to menstrual cramps to indigestion, believing that this drug has been thoroughly tested, is super safe, and that they're just - and that FDA approval is imminent, that this was just, you know, a little bit of a paperwork holdup.

RASCOE: There are obviously a lot of heroes in this book. One of the heroes is Frances Kelsey. Thalidomide was the very first drug that she was assigned to review when she took a job at the FDA. But she doesn't just rubber-stamp her very first thing. She really looks into it when there was a lot of pressure for her not. Like, why do you think she did that?

VANDERBES: So she was a very meticulous scientist. I mean, I think that was her innate nature - I mean, in sort of prowling through, you know, her archives over the six years that I worked on this project, you know. But you have to remember that she entered pharmacology in the late 1930s, which was a completely new and male field at the time. And in fact, she only gets admitted to be a researcher at the University of Chicago's pharmacology department because her name, Frances, is gender ambiguous and she is mistaken for a man. I think, given the nature of the fields that she worked in, I think she always had to work a little bit harder and be a little more meticulous, and she could not afford to make mistakes. So, yes, she - I think she was sort of battling that sexism her entire life and was an incredibly good scientist.

RASCOE: So, you know, many of these babies that were injured by thalidomide - I mean, yes, they had serious defects, but they grew up mentally intact and they've been able to have, you know, very full lives. Like, can you tell us about a few of them?

VANDERBES: I'll start maybe with a story of a woman that I met through the process of researching the book, and her name is Jean Grover. Jean is born with a variation of phocomelia, which affects both her arms and both of her legs. And her mother was told at birth, essentially, your child has no arms or legs. The child won't survive, don't see her. Send her to foster care and kind of move on with your life. No one at the hospital told Jean's mother that she was the fifth baby born in a very short span with the same condition. Phocomelia is so rare that most obstetricians will never see a single case in their practicing lives. Her mother's not told this, and then she's sort of casually asked if she went to Canada to get thalidomide.

RASCOE: They're trying to put it on her. Like, maybe you went somewhere. Yeah.

VANDERBES: Right. Are you such a pill popper that you - and, like, you know, Jean's mother had never even left the country, right? So she just decided this was God's will. She goes about her life. She doesn't see her daughter. Finally, the mother works up the courage to go visit her daughter after all this time, sees her, falls in love and says, we're bringing her home.

Fast-forward - Jean is a mother of four, a graphic designer, you know, one of the most creative, resilient people you can ever meet. But it took her most of her life to realize that she was a victim of thalidomide. Her mother recalled being given what she were told were vitamins for nausea. She was simply never made aware that thalidomide was distributed so widely. Her mother didn't know it. She didn't know it. So Jean is one of what I'll say are, ballpark, a hundred U.S. victims or people who believe that they were harmed by thalidomide who've just started to find each other and also navigating what are significant physical disabilities while receiving no support from the government - none.

RASCOE: That's Jennifer Vanderbes, author of "Wonder Drug: The Secret History Of Thalidomide In America And Its Hidden Victims." Thank you so much for coming on the program.

VANDERBES: Thank you so much, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Matthew Schuerman
Matthew Schuerman has been a contract editor at NPR's Weekend Edition since October 2021, overseeing a wide range of interviews on politics, the economy, the war in Ukraine, books, music and movies. He also occasionally contributes his own stories to the network. Previously, he worked at New York Public Radio for 13 years as reporter, editor and senior editor, and before that at The New York Observer, Village Voice, Worth and Fortune. Born in Chicago and educated at Harvard College and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, he now lives in the New York City area.