• Louize Small

Those Times Science Got it Wrong...

From Thalidomide to DDT, they made us think it was a good idea at the time but hindsight offers a different view...

Modern man likes to extoll the virtues of science and wax lyrical about how the marvels of modern medicine enrich and prolong the lives of many people who would otherwise be doomed. With hindsight, however, we learn valuable lessons. Things that seemed good ideas at the time come to be known as disasters when we discover new information.

The biggest ever man-made medical tragedy was Thalidomide, also known as Distaval in the UK. The ‘wonder drug’ was aggressively marketed in the mid-late 1950s as a sedative medication for anxiety, insomnia and morning sickness, yet it had not been tested on humans and any potential side effects were unknown.

Heinrich Mückter, the scientist credited with its invention, was a Nazi war criminal who conducted medical experiments at the Buchenwald concentration camp in Poland and caused the deaths of countless men. Mückter fled to Germany and evaded prosecution for his crimes, becoming the Head of Research at Chemie Grünenthal, the company that licensed the use of the drug.

By 1958 a number of birth defects were reported in West Germany but the cause was unknown and erroneously attributed to nuclear testing. The side effects of Thalidomide were proven in 1959 and again acknowledged in 1962 but the pharmaceutical giant continued to market the medicine well into the 1970s. The drug caused irreparable harm to 24,000 infants throughout the world and many more babies were miscarried or euthanised on delivery.

In 1968, Chemie Grünenthal executives were tried for Involuntary Manslaughter but proceedings were halted due to the ‘minor guilt’ of the defendants and lack of public interest in the trial. Mückter was never held to account for the death and devastation he caused and died in 1987.


Mercury, a known neurotoxin and endocrine disruptor, was first used in dental fillings in the 19thcentury. Despite the American Society of Dental Surgeons requiring its members to not use amalgam fillings, they continued to be used throughout the world and have only recently been banned in 28 countries for use in children and pregnant women.

There are hundreds of studies that show mercury is hazardous to human health. Elemental mercury can accumulate in brain tissue and leach into food and saliva. Fillings expand and contract with exposure to different temperatures, causing cracks and fractures in teeth. Over time, the amalgam corrodes and vapour is released. Symptoms of mercury poisoning include: sweating, tremors, faster than normal heartbeat, addiction, memory loss, depression, cancer, thyroid disorders, Parkinson’s and dementia.


DDT is another chemical that has caused issues throughout the world. It was first synthesised in 1874 but its potency as an insecticide was not discovered until 1939. Before DDT, countless millions of people died worldwide due to illnesses such as malaria, typhus, yellow fever and bubonic plague.

While DDT has helped in the fight against malaria, and remains in use, it is hard to avoid the negative impact it has had on wildlife, due to the destruction of habitats and food sources. The widespread use of the chemical agent saw a decline in bird populations as their eggshells became so fragile that many of them shattered before hatching.

In 2004, 170 countries signed the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, restricting the use of DDT to emergencies (such as a malaria outbreak). It was hailed as a wonder chemical but its toxicity is well known. DDT, which is sprayed heavily on crops and present in the food we eat, breaks down to DDE in the human body and accumulates over time because it is water insoluble and therefore stored in fatty tissue. Exposure to the chemical can cause nervous system damage, congenital disabilities, male infertility, miscarriage and developmental delay. Girls exposed to DDT before puberty are five times more likely to develop breast cancer in middle age.


Toiletry company Johnson & Johnson have recently paid out $4.69 billion after 12,000 women sued them for damages following diagnoses of ovarian cancer. The plaintiffs alleged that J&J’s talcum powder products were contaminated with asbestos and that the company had known about it and kept it quiet.

Paediatricians have warned the public against the use of baby powder for decades, because of the risk of aspiration and choking. Cases of infant death caused by inhalation of talc date back to the 1960s.

A 2016 Epidemiology study shows genital talc application increases ovarian cancer risk by 33%. Another study found that talcum powder usage was common for 63% of women with ovarian cancer.


Glyphosate is a chemical herbicide used to control weeds. It is used in parks, playgrounds and cities and is easily available to buy, despite being a known carcinogen. It is genotoxic and an endocrine disruptor; exposure to it can lead to chronic health and developmental problems. Seeds are genetically modified in order to be resistant to glyphosate as the chemical is sprayed heavily on crops. It is harmful to the environment in myriad ways: it destroys wildflowers and insect habitats and because it is water-soluble it has considerable negative effects on aquatic life; its use binds micronutrients to the soil and causes deficiencies in plants.

The global Monsanto Company has been ordered to pay $10 billion to plaintiffs in a class action suit. The claimants allege that they developed Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma following exposure to the glyphosate-based Round Up. Lawyers claim the company knowingly covered up the health risks of the weed killer by collaborating with insiders of the Environmental Protection Agency to deny any cancer-causing effects. It was also discovered that Monsanto funded front groups to discredit scientists coming forward to report the harm caused by the product.

Bayer bought out Monsanto in 2018 and is now threatening bankruptcy if the plaintiffs do not agree to their terms. Appeals are still pending and many claimants have had their settlements reduced. Many of those involved in the class action suit have received no pay out at all, while the lawyers are laughing all the way to the bank.

(c) Louize Small October 2020

This article appears in the October edition of the Light (Issue 2).


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