Thalidomide’s Secret Past: The Link with Nazi Germany

The thalidomide saga is probably one of the most worst man-made medical scandals ever recorded in human history.

Commenting on the link between Nazi Germany and the development thalidomide, Ray Stokes, Ph.D., Professor of Business History at the University of Glasgow, who has a special interest in the chemical and pharmaceutical industry, notes in his report about the history of the drug that “We can establish a background in the Nazi period of connections between Heinrich Mückter, one of the key scientists whose name is on the original patent of the thalidomide, and… other scientists who were involved in experiments on concentration camp inmates.”

In an interview with the British newspaper Daily Mail, Martin W. Johnson BD Ph.D. MSc FRSA, director of the Thalidomide Trust in the United Kingdom said that he has unearthed documents suggesting thalidomide was developed before 1944 by Otto Ambros, a Nazi scientist and one of the most powerful industrialists with direct access to Adolf Hitler, as antidote to nerve toxins including Sarin* and Tabun** [1][2]

Photo 1.0: Otto Ambros (19 May 1901 – 23 July 1990), a German chemist, and Nazi war criminal who was known as “The Devil’s Chemist”, was directly involved with the research of chemical nerve agents, especially Sarin (known as “substance 146”) and tabun. He worked as the Chief of Production at IG Farben’s Buna Werke (synthetic) rubber plant at Monowitz in the Auschwitz complex. As Chief of the Chemical warfare-committee of the Ministry of Armaments and War production, Ambros developed and tested nerve gases on inmates of Auschwitz. After WW II, in 1948, Ambros was tried during the IG Farben trial in Nuremberg. He was convicted and sentenced for crimes against humanity (one count of slave labor) and received a prison sentence of 8 years. In early 1952 he was released from Landsberg Prison. After his release, he became an adviser to chemical companies including W. R. Grace & Co, Dow Chemicals, as well as the U.S. Army Chemical Corps and the U.S. Department of Energy (Atomic Energy Commission), and Pechiney. He was also the chairman of Knoll Pharmaceuticals, a subsidiary of BASF, and Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). He was also advising Chemie Grunenthal now Grunenthal GmbH and Distillers Limited in the United Kingdom in the ongoing development of thalidomide. [8] While working with W.R. Grace & Co, Ambros protégé, Fritz Hoffmann went on to create 2,4-D. Agent Orange.
Ambros, who, during World War II, was the managing director of Anorgana GmbH, a company with nominal ties to IG Farben AG, the German chemical and pharmaceutical industry conglomerate notorious for its role in the holocaust, was Hitler’s chief chemical weapons engineer and supplied scientists and engineers in the Third Reich with equipment and tools needed to built and operate production facilities for nerve gas.[3]

In 1948, Ambros was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity at Nuremberg Trials, a series of military tribunals, held by the Allied forces of World War II for the prosecution of prominent members of the political, military, and economic leadership of Nazi Germany, and sentenced to eight years in prison. He was, however, release early, in 1951.

After his release, he became chairman of the advisory board of Chemie Grünenthal GmbH, the company in the center of the thalidomide saga. He served in this capacity until his death in 1990. Ambros was also an advisor for the British pharmaceutical company The Distillers Company (Biochemicals) Ltd, a subsidiary of Distillers Co. Ltd., which became part of Diageo plc in 1997. This company marketed thalidomide under the brand name Distavel in the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand.[4][5]

Nerve agent antidote: Thalidomide
Coincidently, researchers and historians working for The Thalidomide Trust in the United Kingdom have developed evidence directly linking Ambros, who, as chief of Nazi-Germany’s Chemical warfare-committee was responsible for the development nerve gases which he tested on prisoners in Auschwitz, with the development of an antidote for nerve agents, one of which became thalidomide, before he joined Chemie Grünenthal in the 1950s.

Photo 2.0. Factory of IG Farben AG in Monowitz, near Auschwitz (1941). Courtesy: German Federal Archives (Bundesarchiv: Bild 146-2007-0057; photograph, o.Ang. Used with permission.

Chemie Grünenthal was founded in 1946 by devoted Catholic Nazi-party members, the twin brothers Hermann and Alfred Wirtz, to take advantage of the post-war demand for antibiotics and other pharmaceutical products.

Hermann and Alfred Wirtz came from a prosperous family that had run the successful soap and perfume factory Mäurer & Wirtz in Stolberg, on the outskirts of Aachen in North-Rhine–Westphalia, originally founded by Andreas Augustus Wirtz in 1845. For decades family had been a pillar of Aachen society, known for their philanthropy, which included a new roof on the city’s imperial cathedral, built by Charlemagne in 786.

But being a very capable businessman, Hermann Wirtz, who was aided by his brother Alfred, managed the company, had used Hitler’s Aryanisation program to take over two Jewish-owned firms in the 1930s, one of which made the Tabac-range of luxury perfume and soaps which are still sold by the company.

And despite the defeat of Nazi-Germany, Hermann Wirtz emerged loaded with cash and valuable contacts necessary to establish a new company: Chemie Grünenthal.

Legacy of IG Farben AG
But like any industry, Chemie Grünenthal needed experienced scientists and leadership experienced with pharmaceutical drugs. And just like the United States, the United Kingdom, and Soviet Union, post-war Germany, still under the control of the Supreme Allied Command and from 1949 to 1952 the High Commissioner for Germany (HICOG), tended to ignore the likelihood that some of the key scientists had valuable medical and scientific “knowledge” based on results from “experiments” on prisoners in concentration camps.

In 1945, following the Allied Command dismantled and dismembered German industries, under its authority. The intent was “to render impossible any future threat to Germany’s neighbors or to world peace.”  However, with the onset of the Cold War, the desire to follow-true and liquidate German’s industrial complex, especially in the western zones of Germany, lessened. In the end, Supreme Allied Command later the High Commissioner for Germany, together with the government of the newly formed Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) agreed to split IG Farben in three independent companies: Hoechst (now part of Sanofi Genzyme), Bayer, and BASF (the first two being reestablished in 1951 while BASF was reestablished in 1952).

Beyond the corporate developments following WWII, key Nazi scientists, often only receiving a token punishment in the late 1940s, emerged again in the early 1950s, eager to reestablish their control as consultants, advisors, and executives.

Chemie Grünenthal would become a haven for a number of these Nazi scientists. The fact that Chemie Grünenthal actively recruited these “experts” was not necessarily surprising. Even major American and British companies had maintained commercial links with the Nazi regime during WWII and afterward recruited former Nazi scientists, consultants, and advisors, too.

However, many historians looking at the number of former Nazi party members working for Chemie Grünenthal in the late 1950s and early 1960s, are absolutely astonished that a small company has such a high concentration of convicted war criminals on its staff.  This, they contend, was unusual even by the standards of post-war Germany.

The recruitment of these “experts” was sanctioned by the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff who approved the systematic exploitation of scientific and technical knowledge developed in Nazi Germany. In a classified memorandum titled “Exploitation of German Scientists in Science and Technology in the United States,” they described these men as “chosen, rare minds whose continuing intellectual productivity we wish to use.”  And while the Soviet Union also worked hard in acquiring German expertise, with the emerging Cold War, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff supported every effort designed to guarantee that “intellectual spoils” were not to fall into Soviet hands. Hence, after defeating Nazi Germany in 1945, Operation Overcast (later renamed Operation Paperclip) more than 1,600 Nazi Germans were secretly recruited to develop armaments “at a feverish and paranoid pace that came to define the Cold War.” In addition, America sent hundreds of experts to Germany to guide the transfer of scientific and technical knowledge back to the United States.

And with this transfer of scientific and technical knowledge, a large number of “chosen Nazi scientists” migrated to the United States. Others, however, remained in Germany where they were ultimately recruited by German companies, including Chemie Grünenthal.

Much was at stake, and the interest in a whole-sales transfer of scientific and technical knowledge was not only American in nature – the British also developed a program to hire German scientists for industry and representatives from Canada, Australia, India, and South Africa eagerly waited to join in. In addition, French and Soviet operators also worked hard to exploit Nazi Germany’s scientific knowledge and technology.

Thriving Nazi’s
Although Nazi scientists were recruited to assist in the victorious Allied powers in their post-war development of novel technology to combat the Soviet threat, many of them remained in Germany.

Among those recruited by Hermann Wirtz to join the team at Chemie Grünenthal was Martin Staemmler, a leading proponent of the Nazi racial hygiene policy. Following Germany’s invasion of Poland, Staemmler had, as a member of the Schutzstaffel (SS), worked on German’s population policy, in effect deciding who should live and who should die. At Chemie Grünenthal he was head of pathology at the time thalidomide was being sold.

In addition to Ambros and Staemmler, Wirtz recruited Heinrich Mückter, a former Nazi doctor and his mentor – the eminent former Nazi Professor Werner Schulemann.

Mückter, who, during WWII had worked on the development anti-typhus vaccines had, reportedly carried out ‘medical’ and ‘scientific’ experiments on prisoners in Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Grodno as well as at Kraków. These experiments resulted in the death of hundreds of prisoners, making Mückter, at the end of WWII, a wanted by the Polish authorities. However, caught by the American forces, and aided by the emerging politics of the Cold War, he was given the opportunity to continue his work at Chemie Grünenthal as the company’s chief scientist and head of research.

While Mückter able to may have been “responsible” for the company’s research and development, according to researchers and historians at The Thalidomide Trust, it may have been another Nazi, Werner Schulemann, who had developed the first synthetic antimalarial drug and carried out human experiments in field hospitals and in numerous death camps who may have been one of the developmental brain behind thalidomide.

More Nazi’s join Chemie Grünenthal
Although not directly involved with thalidomide, Wirtz also recruited Ernst-Günther Schenck, another Nazi doctors and the only uniformed Nazi known to have found refuge at Chemie Grünenthal. As the inspector of nutrition for the SS, he developed a protein sausage that was tested on 370 prisoners in concentration camps, killing many. And while Schenck was barred from ever working as a doctor again in Germany after returning from 10 years as a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union, Writz invited him to join Chemie Grünenthal.

Wirtz also offered employment to Heinz Baumkötter, who, as an SS hauptsturm-führer, has been the chief concentration-camp doctor in Mauthausen and Natzweiler-Struthof, and, most notoriously, from 1942 the chief medical officer in Sachsenhausen. Sentenced to life imprisonment by the Soviet Union, Baumkötter returned to Germany in 1956 and joined Chemie Grünenthal.

These former Nazi part members became part of a global pharmaceutical network, with powerful friends in high places from London to Paris and Washington.

Thalidomide patent
Interestingly, Chemie Grünenthal patent application for thalidomide (applied on May 17, 1954 and issued on August 11, 1960) strangely mentions that the drug had already been tested on humans – before official tests began.[4][^]

The manufacturing process for derivatives of amino-piperidine-2,6-diones at the German Patent Office issued August 11, 1960 under patent number 1,074,584.

While representatives from Chemie Grünenthal suggested that thalidomide was originally developed in 1952 as a tranquilizer by Swiss pharmaceutical company Ciba AG (now part of Novartis), historical documents proof that the company had previously purchased the trade name Contergan, and therefore presumably the drug, from Rhône-Poulenc (now Sanofi) a French pharmaceutical company which, during WWII, had been controlled by the Nazi’s.

Chemie Grünenthal also claimed to have done multiple independent animal experiments showing absolutely no mutagenic effects and no birth abnormalities. However, when, in the late 1960s, Chemie Grünenthal’s documents regarding the history and development of thalidomide were subpoenaed for the civil actions against the company, it was reported that virtually all documents that showed where and when animal research, as well as clinical studies on humans, were conducted, had been lost. [8]

Just like the Ciba narrative, this story turned out to be a hoax. Although starting 1942, Rhône-Poulenc did register 14 new pharmaceutical agents, all ending with the suffix –ergan, and the associated drugs had each very distinct similarities with thalidomide, the company was, at that time, entirely under Nazi-control. [6][7]

What is clear, however, is that before and during WWII Ambros worked with Gerhard Schrader, an IG Farben chemist who specialized in organophosphate insecticides. The men were among 4 scientists* credited with discovering lethal nerve agents – Tabun, Sarin, Soman, and Cyclosarin. Coincidently, in 1939, Schrader worked at the Rhone-Poulenc lab which was under Nazi control during the war years serving as a chemical plant producing mass amounts of war-grade Sarin.

The same chemical formula?
In his book Hitler’s Laboratories the Argentinian writer Carlos De Napoli states that he has discovered documents dated November 1944 from IG Farben AG, which refer to a chemical agent with the same chemical formula as thalidomide. According to De Napoli, IG Farben’s director Fritz ter Meer sent a memo to Karl Brandt, the SS general who ran Hitler’s euthanasia program, explaining that a drug with number 4589 (with the same characteristics as thalidomide) had been tested and was ready for use.

According to documents discovered after WWII, Mückter and Ambros working under the supervision of Joseph Mengele, referred to ‘compound 4589’ being tested on female prisoners in Auschwitz.  In these Auschwitz files, researchers discovered correspondence between the camp commander and Bayer Leverkusen (a part of IG Farben). The correspondence dealt with the sale of one hundred and fifty female prisoners for experimental purposes, “… with a view to the planned experiments with a new sleep-inducing drug we would appreciate it if you could place a number of prisoners at our disposal…”.

After WWII, in 1948, Ter Meer was sentenced to seven years in prison in the Nuremberg Trials for his role during World War II.  Following his release in 1951 he became the supervisory board chairman of Bayer AG, which, together with Agfa, BASF and Hoechst (now Sanofi Genzyme), is one of the successor companies of IG Farben.

Based on growing evidence from a variety of resources, including patent documents, historians and researchers at The Thalidomide Trust, including Martin Johnson, believes that thalidomide, in documents submitted to the World Health Organization (WHO) also referred to as “K17,” was probably one of a number of products developed at Dyhernfurth, one of Nazi Germany’s largest and most secret chemical laboratory located 40 kilometers from Breslau in Western Poland or the synthetic rubber and petrol processing plant in Auschwitz-Monowitz, near Krakow in southern Poland.[9]

Never punished
Before developing thalidomide, Chemie Grünenthal had, however, tried to market a derivative of penicillin. Confirming the company’s less than an ethical approach to medicine, this derivate proved to be substantially more toxic than the parent compound. The company also marketed a tuberculostatic drug that, in the end, turned out to be entirely ineffective.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, German doctors and their counterparts around the world repeatedly reported the birth of infants with seriously deformed or underdeveloped limbs, an excessively rare condition known as phocomelia as well as dysmelia, amelia, bone hypoplasticity, and other congenital defects affecting the ear, heart, or internal organs. One of the physicians trying to find what caused the developing epidemic was the pediatrician Widekund Lenz of Hamburg. He determined that most cases of phocomelia, if not all, were linked to the baby’s mothers taking thalidomide during their pregnancies.

A week after Lenz, during a meeting of pediatricians on 18 November 1961, reported a link between thalidomide and phocomelia, Chemie Grünenthal withdrew the drug, blaming pressure from the media as its reason for doing so and without admitting any causal connection between the drug and injury to unborn children.[10]

While in retrospect the company that marketed and licensed thalidomide is universally regarded as having been responsible for much of the injury that it caused, numerous civil claims for damage brought against Chemie Grünenthal and its licensees were settled out of court.

Hermann Wirtz Sr., Founder and Executive at Chemie Grünenthal.

Although a clear link can be established between nefarious, former Nazi party members working for the company, there was never a successful prosecution of the company or its employees.

A large criminal trial brought in Germany in late 1968 charged several former Nazi officials working Chemie Grünenthal and the company itself with negligent homicide and injury. But in December 1970, under pressure of government representatives of the Federal Republic of Germany, the trial was abandoned after nearly a decade of preparation and hearings. The architect of Chemie Grünenthal’s rescue was Joseph Neuberger, a minister in the German Social Democrat government.

Even though Hermann Wirtz, the fouder of  Chemie Grünenthal, was one of the defendants in the trial, he always held that he had done nothing wrong. In the end Wirtz never had to justify himself in front of the court. Before the start of the trial, primarily for health reasons, the case against Wirtz separated from the main trial. The trial ended without a verdict on December 18, 1970. Hermann Wirtz passed away in 1973.

Decades later Michael Wirz, Hermann Wirz’s son, was made a Papal Knight by Jose Mario Bergoglio (Pope Francis). Today the Wirtz family is one of the richest in Europe and still runs the company worth billions of dollars.

In the court case against the family and Chemie Grünenthal, the defense had “successfully” argued that, as a result of the lengthy proceedings, a trial would inflict undue stress on those involved. The fact that Chemie Grünenthal had, in April 1970, agreed to numerous settlements out of court, totaling more than 100 million German Mark to be paid by a German trust also contributed to the abandonment of the trial.

In addition to the voluntary settlement from Chemie Grünenthal, the German trust also received 350 million German Mark funding from the German government. Depending on the severity of their disability, the trust paid victims a one-time sum of 2,500-25,000 German Mark and a monthly stipend of 100-450 German Mark. Since the early 1970s, the monthly payments have been raised substantially and following the demise of the trust, are now paid entirely by the German government. Chemie Grünenthal, now simply known as Grünenthal, paid another 50 million Euros into the foundation in 2008.

In the United Kingdom after a long campaign by The Sunday Times, a compensation settlement for British victims was reached with Distillers Company (now part of Diageo), which had distributed thalidomide in the UK. Distributed by The Thalidomide Trust, this compensation substantially increased by Diageo in 2005. In addition, in 2009 the British government provided a UK £ 20 million grant, to help survivors.

In 1990 Otto Ambros, the Devel’s Chemist leading the development of thalidomide died at the age of 92. Following his death executives at BASF, on whose board of directors Ambros has served, called him “an expressive entrepreneurial figure… with great charisma.”

Ambros death would not end the thalidomide saga.

* SARIN is an acronym derived from letters in the names of the four key individuals in its development: Schrader and Ambros of IG Farben and Rudiger and Linde of the Army Ordnance Office.
** Tabun is an extremely toxic chemical substance, is a clear, colorless, and tasteless liquid with a faint fruity odor. It is classified as a nerve agent because it fatally interferes with the normal functioning of the mammalian nervous system. Its production is strictly controlled and stockpiling outlawed by the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993. Tabun is the first of the so-called G-series nerve agents along with GB (sarin), GD (soman) and GF (cyclosarin). Based on a process developed by Gerhard Schrader, a German chemist who specialized in the discovery of new insecticides and best known for his accidental discovery of nerve agents, Nazi Germany manufactured at least 12,000 metric tons of Tabun was manufactured between 1942 and 1945 in the chemical agent factory in Dyhernfurth an der Oder (codenamed “Hochwerk”; today Brzeg Dolny, Poland).
[^] The German Patent for the manufacturing process for derivatives of amino-piperidine-2,6-diones at the German Patent Office issued August 11, 1960 under patent number 1,074,584.

[1] Andrew Levy. Nazis developed Thalidomide and tested it on concentration camp prisoners, author claims. February 8, 2009 [Article]
[2] Robert Harris, Jeremy Paxman A Higher Form of Killing: The Secret History of Chemical and Biological Warfare. Random House Trade Paperbacks. ISBN-10: 0812966538.
[3] Josiah E. Dubois. The Devil’s Chemists Hardcover. The Beacon Press; 1ST edition (1952) (Comment in: The Devil’s Chemists, 24 Conspirators of the International Farben Cartel Who Manufacture Wars [Article])
[4] Judy Stone. From the Holocaust to Thalidomide: A Nazi Legacy. Scientific American, November 8, 2012 [Article]
[5] Reversal of Fortune: How a Vilified Drug Became a Life-saving Agent in the “War” Against Cancer. Onco’Zine – The International Oncology Network. November 30, 2013. [Article]
[6] Controversy: The involvement of Ciba AG in the development of Thalidomide. Onco’Zine – The International Oncology Network. November 30, 2013 [Article]
[7] Thalidomide: In the Shadow of Death – Onco’Zine – The International Oncology Network [Video/Article]
[8] Jacobsen A. Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America – February 11, 2014.[Book]
[9] Lenhard-Schramm N. Das Land Nordrhein-Westfalen und der Contergan-Skandal: Gesundheitsaufsicht und Strafjustiz in den »langen sechziger Jahren«; Published October 10, 2016, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht (ISBN: 9783647301785).
[10] Lenz W. History of Contergan (thalidomide), Lecture to the 1992 Congress of UNITH (Union Nationale pour ‘Insertion des Travailleurs Handi-capes).