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Thalidomide in Australia


Thalidomide was created in Germany by the Grünenthal Group (Wirtz family).

Primarily prescribed as a sedative thalidomide also claimed to cure anxiety, insomnia, gastritis, and


Later, it was used against nausea and to alleviate morning sickness in pregnant women.


The first Thalidomide-affected baby was born in West Germany to a Grünenthal employee.


Thalidomide was first licenced for use in the United Kingdom under the brand name Distaval.​

June 1960: 

Thalidomide was marketed in Australia under a Menzies government.


Scottish doctor Leslie Florence publishes a letter in a British medical journal highlighting the dangers

of nerve damage and Thalidomide.


Distaval is declared a potent drug in Victoria, Australia. This restricted its sales to Chemists.


 Australian Dr. William McBride, notified Chemie Grünenthal’s Australian distributor Distillers about his suspicions of the link between Distaval (Thalidomide) and malformations.

Distillers claim they never received the written report.

Yet sales promotion of the drug was stepped up and a quarter of a million leaflets distributed saying

Thalidomide is "Harmless even over a long period of use" and "completely harmless even for infants".

1961/May 4:

Dr. William McBride reported further malformations due to Thalidomide and succeeded in convincing

his superiors at Crown Street Women's Hospital, Sydney, that the drug must be withdrawn from use in

the hospital.

In October and November Dr. McBride reported further malformed babies.   


Approved for sale over the counter without a prescription in Victoria, Australia.


 Thalidomide was withdrawn from the British and the Australian markets by the manufacturer,

Chemie Grünenthal.

1961/Dec 2: 

Australian distributor Distillers withdrew from sale, Distaval, Asmaval, Tensivale, Valgis, and Valgraine.

All (5) of these medications contained Thalidomide.

Whilst Distaval was most commonly associated with morning sickness and baby abnormalities, the other

medications were prescribed for symptoms of headache, toothache, hay fever, bronchitis, migraine,

fibrositis, asthma, neuralgia, arthritis.

The reality was, that any of these tablets (or syrup) could be given to an unsuspecting woman, her child be mutilated or murdered, and the connection between Thalidomide and Thalidomide babes, not be made.

Whilst Thalidomide (under the collection of trade names listed above) was withdrawn by Distillers, the

Australian Government did nothing to alert the public and/or search and destroy remaining stock.    

1961/Dec 16: 

 Dr McBride's observations were published in the Lancet highlighting the connections between

Thalidomide and birth defects.

His observations were also published in the Australian Medical Journal on December 23.


 Australian Health department and Federal Health Minister receive a letter from Distillers stating

Thalidomide may be causing birth defects.

This letter is commonly referred to as the "Dear Doctor" letter.

1962/Jan 6 and Feb 3:

Prof. Widijung Lenz who had warned against Thalidomide in Germany published evidence of deformities in the Lancet.

Chemie Grünenthal continued making and distributing Thalidomide, stepping up its

advertising and intensive marketing despite criticism of doctors 

1962/March 4:  

Thalidomide was removed from the shelves in Germany because of public opinion and against the

wishes of Chemie Grünenthal.

News of the dangers of Thalidomide was played down by the media.

In many cases, malformed births occurred after the drug was withdrawn as many households were

in possession of the drug.

Pregnant mothers took it never realizing the risks involved.    


Classified as a drug to be sold only on doctors’ prescriptions in Victoria, Australia.


A midwife (Rennie Simmons) publishes "Warning to Women" in response to the inaction of the government to notify Australia on the dangers of Thalidomide.


FDA inspector Frances Kelsey, prevented the drug’s approval within the United States despite pressure from the pharmaceutical company and FDA supervisors.

Kelsey felt the application for thalidomide contained incomplete and insufficient data on its safety and effectiveness.

Kelsey was also concerned that there were not yet any results available from U.S. clinical trials of the


1962/July 27:

New Zealand Department of Health issue a directive to seize Thalidomide from Chemists and hospital

shelves, under the Section 12 of the Food and Drug Act.

1962/Aug 1:

President John F. Kennedy immediately responded to the recommendations of Frances Kelsey, by;

                   * Alerting the people of America to the dangers of Thalidomide.

                     He personally made appearances on television warning of the dangers.

                   * Had warnings flashed on the television screens and over the radio at regular intervals

                      throughout the day and night for weeks.

                   * Called for a nationwide search of every home and medicine cabinet in the country.

                   * Ordered for the destruction of every Thalidomide tablet found.

                   * Allocated a team of 200 men to track down every doctor who may have obtained supplies

                     from outside sources, giving orders that any Thalidomide found to be destroyed on sight.


New Zealand Government prohibited the importation, manufacture, sale, and use of Thalidomide in

New Zealand.  

1962/Aug 9:

Australian government FINALLY bans the sale of Thalidomide.

1962/Aug 9:

Minister for Health (Senator Wade) said "no action" was necessary on the drug Thalidomide in Australia, because “the manufacturer had withdrawn it from the market.” ( The Age, August 9, 1962)

                    * Because of this “no action”, it was still possible to walk into a Chemist shop and purchase                         100 tablets 7.5 months after “the manufacturer had withdrawn it from the market”.

                    * Because of this “no action” it was also possible for the manufacturer to make supplies                             available to hospitals at any time.


The following citations from the Federal Parliament Hansard suggest a delay occurring between when the Australian Health Department became aware of the effects of Thalidomide, and the banning of the drug.

August 22: “Why was not the ban on Distaval imposed then, instead of four months afterwards, when a

                    question was asked in this House?”

                    Senator Turnbull (Tas), 22 August 1962;

 August 30: “The reason why I raise this matter, Mr. Deputy President, is that I have a disquieting                                   feeling that our Department of Health is not sufficiently aware of what is happening.”

                    Senator Turnbull (Tas),30 August, 1962; 

October 17: “I think that not only every honorable member but everybody in the country was shocked                         by the tragedy of babies born deformed as a result of the use by their mothers during  

                   pregnancy of the drug thalidomide. Australia's Minister for Health does not seem to have 

                   been shocked sufficiently to do much about it”,

                    Mr. Webb (Stirling), 17 October, 1962.


The Health department draws up several Press Release's outlining the dangers of Thalidomide.

Health Minister Wade refuses to sign them.

1962/Dec 11:

Health Minister Wade is reported by The Herald as categorically denying that the drugs Tensivil,

Valgraine, and Valgris, [all containing Thalidomide] were ever sold in Australia ... (which they were)

1962/Dec 13:

Letter from J.F. Cairns (Member of House of Representatives) writes to Senator Wade (Federal Health

Minister) to inquire as to the possibility of Thalidomide being contained in Tensival, Valgis, and


These medications were on sale for common complaints.

Dec 17, 1962:

Federal Health Minister Wade replies to J.F Cairns responding, “he would have to investigate

this matter”.

1963/Jan 3: 

  As written by the Director General to Minister Wade;

              “On the 10th December, The Melbourne Herald published your warning to householders to                       destroy supplies of Thalidomide preparations in their possession, but so far as can be                            ascertained, your statement did not appear in Interstate newspapers. 

1963/Jan 9: 

Letter from Director General of Health to Minister Wade outlining leader of the Opposition [Mr Calwell] was concerned insufficient notification had been delivered to the public concerning Thalidomide. 

1963/Jan 6: 

Minister Wade responds:

             “I am of the opinion that a further press statement on Thalidomide would serve no useful

               purpose at present time”

1963/Jan 24: 

Distillers report 8,079,184 thalidomide tablets in storage, in a Sydney warehouse.  

1963/May 14: 

Senator McClelland, addresses the Australian Federal Parliament;

              “The fact is, as I have said, that very little, if anything at all, is being done to assist these                           23 malformed Australians. Perhaps it is that society, consciously or unconsciously, wants to

               forget about them. Perhaps it is that a collective family group of 23 cannot be regarded as

               a pressure group. In any event, very little, if anything at all, is being done in Australia to

               alleviate the problems of the parents of these children or to assist the afflicted children

                them selves.”

               The Senate Appropriation Bill (No.2) 1962-63. May 14,1963.

(Note: only 23 babies were identified as Thalidomide at this stage)

Mid to late 1960’s:

The Australian Government made available the facilities of Veterans Affairs to provide the

fitting of artificial limbs for those children missing either upper or lower limbs.


Chemie Grünenthal is brought to trial in Germany charged with intent to commit bodily harm and

involuntary manslaughter.


The trial against Grünenthal is brought to a premature end by the German government stating that the trial “was not in the public interest”.


The Australian government made a one-off payment of $150,000 to off-set the taxes earned by the

Thalidomide Foundation. 


United Kingdom Health Minister (Mike O’Brien) makes a formal apology to their Thalidomide Victims,

expressing “sincere regret and deep sympathy” on behalf of the government.


The inventor of Thalidomide (the Grünenthal Group) releases a statement saying it regrets the

consequences of the drug.

             “We ask that you regard our long silence as a sign of the silent shock that your fate has                            caused us!” Company Chief Executive, Harold Stock

Aug 20, 2018: 

Australia Labor Party moves for a SENATE INQUIRY into support for thalidomide survivors.


Following any settlements in 1974 (Distillers), 2010 (Diageo), and 2014 (Diageo), the Australian Federal

Government passed legislation ensuring that the lump sum and ex-gratia payments were not

considered income and therefore not liable for payment of income tax. 


The Grünenthal Group have never recognised and/or compensated its Australian victims.

In 2015, The Grünenthal Group boasts a revenue of 1.2 billion euro.

The Grünenthal Group are present in 32 countries with products sold worldwide in 155 countries.


Chemie Grünenthal is STILL operating here in Australia unencumbered by sanctions or penalties.


The Australian Government is still ignoring the Thalidomide survivors they helped create.

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