The Enduring Mystery of Thalidomide

By Carl Zimmer | March 15, 2010 6:20 pm

thalidomideIn tomorrow’s New York Times I write about the afterlife of the greatest medical disaster in history. Thalidomide, a drug women took for morning sickness in the late 1950s, caused thousands of devastating birth defects, such as the failure of limbs to develop. Even after the drug was banned, scientists had no idea how it interfered with growing arms and legs. In fact, fifty years later, they’re only just starting to figure it out.

This was a particularly interesting story to write coming after a piece I wrote for the Times last year about normal limb development.  Now thalidomide is revealing a new player in the limb development game, a protein that no one knew about when I wrote my 2009 article. In science, very often the only way to understand how something works is to see what happens when it goes wrong.

PS: On Google Books, you can see a 1962 issue of Life with some stunning pictures from the Thalidomide years.

[Image: Science Museum (Thalidomide is currently legal for sale for leprosy and other diseases)]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Writing Elsewhere
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Comments (4)

  1. Thalidomide has fascinated me more and more since my mother told me she took it OTC in Toyko when she was pregnant with me in 1956. She had morning sickness as well as home sickness. My dad was stationed there (Army). She was afraid if the military found out she was pregnant, they wouldn’t be allowed to return back to the US but would continue to be stationed there until after she delivered.

    Thankfully, I was not one of the thalidomide babies born with defected limbs. Timing of exposure seems to be an important component. I never pinned down the exact gestational weeks of my exposure. It bothered my mom when I told her more about the drug. It initially came up when I made some off-hand comment about drugs (ie Thalidomide) which sometimes cause birth defects but are useful for certain diseases (ie leprosy). Didn’t have the heart to push her.

  2. J

    I’d argue that the biggest medical disaster was hemophiliacs / AIDS tainted blood.

  3. stsmith

    Carl, on the subject of when developmental biology goes wrong, a field report on Harvard Medical School’s Warren Anatomical Museum‘s collection would be fantastic. It’s located on the very top floor of Building A. They have it all: cyclops, sirens, mirror hands, and more, all neatly but ghastly preserved in glass bottles and display cases. I used to think that cyclops and sirens were invented by Homer, but no, these are ordinary, naturally occurring developmental abnormalities. Photography at the museum is not permitted and access is very limited, which is why you cannot find any online pictures from this important museum.

    A report on this with pictures, along with the now-known science that explains it, and the history going back to Homer and before, is long overdue. I see from a quick Google search that Smithsonian Magazine just ran a brief article on “highlights” from the museum, which showed a wooden model of Aké, a Chinese boy with a partially-formed parasitic twin protruding from his stomach, but the Smithsonian doesn’t mention the most fascinating part of the collection. You’re one of the few people that could carry off a full report of the Warren’s actual collection.

    [CZ: Thanks for the tip. I didn’t know about the museum, but it sounds a lot like the wonderful Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. I’d be a little hesitant to take on such an assignment, because Armand LeRoi did such a grand job in his book Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body.]

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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