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Autism Ideas - Pt 6: The
Thalidomide Doctor Who Got Struck Off

By Mary W Maxwell, PhD
This Monday, June 13, which is Queen's Birthday here in Australia, marks the 50th anniversary of the day in 1961 when a fine young obstetrician, Dr. Willliam McBride, submitted a very urgent article to the British medical journal, "The Lancet."
Doctors in Sydney had been prescribing a sedative called thalidomide for patients with 'nerves' or insomnia. McBride saw that thalidomide worked well as an anti-emetic, so he prescribed it for morning sickness in early pregnancy. Then, unexpectedly, three of the women in his practice gave birth to boys with no radius, i.e., upper arm bone, and with missing fingers. These boys also had a bowel obstruction, which led to death in a week.
The Lancet's deputy editor, Dr I Douglas-Wilson, said that owing to a large number of important (!) papers awaiting publication, McBride's submission was being returned to him. Impossible, you say? Yes, of course, impossible -- in a decent world. But perfectly possible if the powers-that-be were aware of what was going on, and wished it to remain unnoticed until a lot of damage had been done. Ill argue that below. (Yes, I do believe The Lancet knows what its doing, especially these days re autism. Yessir.)
At the end of his career, Dr McBride was subjected to an unbelievable show trial that lasted four years, leaving him with a legal bill of $2.2 million. It ended with the unfair decision, dated 1993, that he was unfit to practice medicine. This story needs a re-look!
Here are the relevant events of 1961 and 1962. This timeline is derived from the book, "Killing the Messenger," by William McBride (1996). I shall use three abbreviations:
T for thalidomide / McB for McBride / Dis for Distillers Biochemicals (makers of T)
4 May: first malformed baby born, but McB has no idea what caused it.
24 May: second baby born. McB and hospital director Newlinds puzzle over coincidence.
8 June: third baby, looks like the other two. McB now realizes the connection must be T.
13 June: Newlinds withdraws T from use at hospital; McB informs local branch of the UK manufacturer, Dis, about the malformations, and mails his short article to The Lancet.
14 June: Dr Murray Moyes recommends animal studies, so McB and Norman Frost give pregnant mice and rabbits high dose of thalidomide. Yet all offspring are normal!
13 July: Lancet rejects McBride's article. Thus, women of the world remain unwarned. ("Rejection was a stunning blow, almost too much to have to tell my wife Patricia.")
4 Sept: McB delivers another baby without radius and with short legs; the baby dies.
mid-Sept: McB tell pharmacologist Roland Thorp at Wellcome his theory: that deformities were produced by T competing with glutamic acid, which is important in the metabolism of nervous tissue. Thorp disagrees, and still disagrees after birth of a 5th baby, 26 Sept.
30 Sept: Lancet [tipped off by Thorp?) writes editorial: Drugs taken by pregnant women may enter and upset the fetus. It behooves all who care to be on the alert for it.
mid-Nov: Dr Richmond Jeremy urges McB to send The Lancet a "Letter to the Editor." McB drafts letters to Lancet and the Medical Journal of Australia, but delays mailing them, as Wal Hodgetts at Dis says: Please hold off until we withdraw T from the market.
27 Nov: The German manufacturer of thalidomide tells Distillers of the UK that a doctor in Germany, W. Linz, suspects T is teratogenic (i.e., leads to deformities).
28 Nov: Dis withdraws T from market worldwide. No publicity; doctors are not told why.
16 Dec: McBs Letter to Editor of Lancet gets published, half-year after he sent the article!
January: woman aborts twins at 16 weeks. McB sends one of the two fetuses, in formalin, to Dis. [Distillers Biochemicals, the makers of thalidomide] for examination.
19 Feb: A.D. Claireaux does the post-mortem, finds limb deformities and duodenal atresia.
10 Feb: Lancet writes an editorial: "A few months ago we discussed drugs that may be harmful to the fetus." [Oh, did we? No drug was named in that Sept 30 editorial.]
25 Feb: Story finally breaks in media. Sydney headline: Sleeping Tablet Cripples Babies.
18 Aug: Medical Journal of Australia recounts the facts, without giving credit to McB. He hand-delivers to Ronald Wilton, the editor, a letter telling the story as it happened.
24 Aug: Wilton replies: "Your original reporting of your suspicions may well warrant reporting in due course. However the present seems a particularly impolitic time to publish your letter. I think it might well embarrass you as well as others." (Wha?)
28 Dec: Sydney's Daily Mirror names Dr William McBride Australia's Man of the Year.
Only 35 children in Australia were affected, but thousands elsewhere. The US had never approved the drug, so had few casualties. Frances O Kelsey of the FDA held off, allegedly on the basis of Dr Leslie Florence's 1960 article which claimed the drug causes peripheral neuropathy. The FDA later formed a Subcommittee on Teratology, to include eminent doctors (uh-oh, not too eminent I hope). It drew up a charter recommending, inter alia:
"Thalidomide should be the first drug to be analyzed and investigated beyond the experimental level. It must be understood [Read, in my opinion: "It must never be learned"] why this drug, composed of two non-toxic substances, is toxic to human embryos but relatively harmless to other mammals."
In his book "Killing the Messenger" (whose title will be explained below), McBride states:
"In an attempt to solve the thalidomide enigma, Distillers Biochemicals gave large financial grants to the University of Edinburgh and to St Mary's Hospital, London for research. The St Mary's group, under Prof R T Williams, FRS, carried out extensive research for many years. [One member] Sergio Fabro was to spend many years working on the mechanism of thalidomide toxicity; later he settled at George Washington University. In spite of this extensive research, neither group solved the problem." (p. 89)
That is what the Big Boys (I mean the Really Big Boys) call a job well done, if my theory be correct. And by gosh, the later years of McBride do show my theory to have much merit.
The man had spunk. And if you have spunk you pay. McBride paid in many ways. Surely one of the worst ways was having to sit in a witness box for 36 days (possibly a record?) undergoing cross-examination about virtually everything he had done in his life. Wasn't he Man of the Year in 1962? Yes and, in 1972, Father of the Year. But then he 'went bad.'
May I interject a quick lesson in how to go bad? Three points should do it: 1. Be honest; 2. Take responsibility for what you do; 3. Love science and scientific investigation (oops, could this be why so many microbiologists have suicided in the last decade?). No doubt there are other ways to go bad, but you get my drift.
In 1973 McBride unfortunately hit upon another drug that could harm an embryo if taken early in pregnancy -- the anti-depressant Imipramine. He found babies in whom the drug appeared to have caused malformations. A colleague had hinted to him that all the tricyclcic anti-depressants were a problem. Moreover the pills were dispensed free of charge under Australia's socialized medicine scheme.
It appears that McBride should not have 'gone there.' He gave expert witness in courtrooms against the drug manufacturers. He also questioned the safety of scopolamine. Punishment eventually came, through a third party: In 1987, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, a government-based TV and radio broadcaster (the ABC, or Aunty), let McBride have it between the eyeballs.
Hard to say when the plan for this was hatched, but it may have been in 1977 when there was a vacancy at Foundation 41, a research group that McBride had founded. Professor Robert Walsh, a leader in the group, chose a candidate whom McBride did not favor, to wit: Philip Vardy.
McBride listed Vardy as coauthor of a paper; it got unfavorably peer-reviewed. The rabbits under study were being given scopolamine via their drinking water, fed to them by bottles hooked to the side of the cage at a 45-degree angle and "invariably some of the water leaked." McBride later changed his estimate of how much water actually got imbibed. It did not influence the outcome -- the pregnant females either bore healthy litters or bore deformed litters.
On returning from a trip to America, McBride was noisily smeared by the ABC and the Sydney Morning Herald.. One can only think he had it coming to him for being such a 'naïve' whistleblower. Norman Swan, head of ABC radio (sort of public, like BBC), played the part of -- indeed was almost indistinguishable from -- a certain journalist in UK well known to the autism community, one whose name rhymes with Flyin' Beer.
To feel the Moscow show trial atmosphere, we look at the conclusion reached by the New South Wales Complaint Unit after a four-year trial of the accused. No patient of the good doctor had ever stepped forward to complain to the Complaints Unit; the matter was self-initiated by the Complaints Unit. The ostensible purpose was to get answers to the allegations that Norman Swan and Phil Vardy had raised in the media.
The presiding judge, Judge Wall called the accused, Dr McBride," the classic tragic character the person of eminence in public life whose good deeds and interest in human welfare command respect but who is brought down by a fatal flaw in character." And the flaw is? May I have the envelope please? The flaw is:
"He invented the data of resorptions in the control group of rabbits for the purpose of statistical exercise which was required by editors of the journal to be included in the Article for publication. When questioned for an explanation of his conduct [McBride] attempted to justify it in a way which indicated his intellectual dishonesty."
Note: The offending behavior had occurred eight years before, but the Tribunal felt it "must do what Parliament has charged the Complaints Unit to do." That is, it must decide whether a doctor should have his medical license revoked as a protection for the public. God knows, you wouldn't want to be asked to strip your clothes off for a physician who had fudged the data on rabbit resorptions would you? I know I wouldn't!
I am omitting the fact that the Tribunal spent a year grilling 'the stork' for his having performed too many Caesarian sections. "Douglas Keeping [a witness] was a Scot trained in Aberdeen, a city known for its obstetric care. He was quite definite that he would not have treated some of my patients as I had. However he repeatedly emphasized that there was a wide range of obstetric opinion and that my treatment was acceptable and fell within the tram lines, as he called the confines of acceptable management."
That's a quote from page 197 of "Killing the Messenger," which by the way, is a full autobiography. It wonderfully describes how William and his parents attended the 1932 opening of the Sydney Harbor Bridge -- a right-wing rebel rider pierced the ribbon with his sword, from horseback, whereupon the ribbon had to be mended so the Governor could cut it with a scissors! (Hear a lovely song on Youtube: "The Bridge We've Been Waiting For")
Perhaps it was the publicity -- the almost daily headlines about this fraudulent scientist -- that caused Westpac Bank to foreclose the mortgage on a building that McBride had re-designed to accommodate his new laboratories. This was the Foundation 41, that he had established with the 250,000 franc prize awarded to him by L'Institute de la Vie in Paris. (Or maybe Westpac was told by a Higher Power to put the squeeze on our hero?)
I am pretty shameless when it comes to conspiracy theory, so please be warned that I'm about to go to town. I think the closure of Women's Hospital, where his nibs had much seniority, was probably done to deprive him of his base. I think that his supporter, Jan Langman of the University of Virginia, who died of cancer, was possibly knocked off. (Jan was the one person who could have vouched for McBride about the rabbit study.)
I think it possible that the deformity of children by thalidomide was intended ­ I'm sure AIDS and the 1954 polio were criminal, as I say in my new book "Prosecution for Treason." I think the Irish potato blight of 1849 was cooked up by the House of Rothschild -- it led to the British government taking out the biggest loan in history up to that time. And so on.
We naturally understand the gratitude McBride must have felt toward a handful of people (it only ever takes a handful of people) who were driven to tell the truth. Dr Keeping, the aforementioned Aberdonian, said to the Tribunal, "It is my genuine belief that the clinical case against McBride is a vicious persecution and thoroughly reprehensible." Right on, Professor! McBride also thanks Phillip Knightley, a journo, for writing the books Foreword.
But the grandest praise must be reserved for Royal Australian Navy rear-admiral G J B Crabb. He found himself being set up, by a pharmaceutical company, to spy on and discredit McBride. Crabb wasn't having any of that, and as soon as he figured out that McBride was being targeted for a smearing, he voluntarily made a deposition, dated August 25, 1980, and gave it to McBride to be put in file for later use if necessary. Wow!
"Dear Doctor [it says], A lawsuit had been held recently in the State of Florida where a husband and wife sued a pharmaceutical company for the malformation of their child. [A man told me] that you have agreed to give evidence as an expert witness and I was told that, in this case, money is no object in achieving their aim of discrediting new witnesses."
There! Wouldn't it be great if everyone had a friend who would stick up for him or her like that? And Crabb wasn't even a friend; he was a complete stranger.
Compare that to what you get, even today, from ABC (a.k.a. Aunty) if you search "McBride, thalidomide." It's an old 2001 item, but it's the first thing that comes up on google. It starts with: "Hello. I'm Adam Spencer from the ABC's Science Team. Tonight's Australian Story is about a man who blew the whistle on major scientific fraud in Australia, and in doing so, forever changed the rules and ethics of scientific research. His name is Phil Vardy."  Oh my achin' corns.
Why is such garboodge still being displayed in 2011? I presume it's to keep burning the message into doctors, especially new ones: "Don't support the truth, you'll get creamed."
And don't worry -- you will.
Mary W Maxwell, PhD, is at credosbooks.com. She has a special message for Veritas types: When I ordered a used copy of Killing the Messenger, from alibris.com, the one they sent me is the one Harvard had tossed out of its Cabot Science Library. You medical students really do need to read this inspiring book. Do you realize you could turn today's miserable situation around in a trice, just by showing a bit of 'tude? Also, if God gave you real intellectual gifts, please see the June 10, 2011 article by Teresa Conrick at "Age of Autism." She shows areas of research that may intrigue you. And she will woo you into watching "Burzinsky, the Movie," a McBride-like story on the extremely important subject of cancer research. Come on, young medicos, the Big Boys are counting on you to be pushovers. You're not pushovers, are you?
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