This year marks the 25th anniversary of Canada’s ban on Thalidomide, a tranquilizer used in the late 50s to prevent morning sickness. The drug was developed in West Germany, and distributed in Canada by Richardson-Merrell Inc.
Although promoted as “safe” for pregnant women, in actual fact the drug had been damaging babies in Europe for at least 5 years, and available in Canada for 11 months, before Ottawa ordered it off the market in March 1962.
Health officials could have prevented Thalidomide from ever reaching women in Canada, if the armed forces had alerted Ottawa to the 15 severely deformed babies that had been born to wives of Canadian servicemen posted in West Germany. But at that time, soldiers’ wives were forbidden to join their husbands in West Germany, and the troops themselves ordered to refrain from marriage to German women.
Because army regulations were defied – some Canadian wives joined their husbands and some German natives married Canadian soldiers – Canadian Military Authorities chose to ignore the evidence of Thalidomide rather than face demands for an inquiry at home into the standards of army discipline overseas. The Canadian officials yielded to German entreaties and committed the Canadian Thalidomide babies to German institutions established especially to care for victims of the drug.
The harmful effects of Thalidomide were clearly evident in these 15 children and could have served as a warning. Yet, according to Clifford Chadderton, Chief Executive Officer of the War Amputations of Canada, the army chose neither to investigate nor warn health officials in Ottawa of the dangers of the drug.
Because no action was taken Thalidomide remained on sale in Canada and 115 more babies suffered the effects of the drug before it was finally taken off the market. As Mr. Chadderton put it, “If the army hadn’t been so insular, in its views as to its responsibility, it could have instigated an investigation that would have stopped Thalidomide dead in its trace (in Canada).