Twentieth-century science is too complex for any one reader's apprehension, so we look for stories that help us grasp its enormity. The jubilant discovery, demonization, and subsequent rehabilitation of thalidomide offers a wide-ranging outline of public attitudes toward science following World War II, and the authors of Dark Remedy: The Impact of Thalidomide and Its Revival As a Vital Medicine
tell the story well. Historian Rock Brynner and embryologist Trent Stephens--who may have finally determined the drug's mechanism of action in 1998--treat us to both a devastating indictment of the under-regulated pharmaceutical industry of the 1950s and a penetrating study of thalidomide's reintroduction into mainstream medicine through the black market. The powerful anti-inflammatory properties of the drug make it a popular choice for treating arthritis, leprosy, some cancers, AIDS, MS, and many other debilitating illnesses, but it has only recently won grudging approval. Though the its tone can be acidic (in one instance referring to the "Utopian prosthetics custom-designed for the deformities caused by Utopian medicine"), the book is, for the most part, fair to the corporations that caused and then ignored the epidemic of birth defects, the victims who understandably tried to prevent the drug's revival, and the regulators who were too often bound by short-sighted legislation to do their jobs. The heroes and villains are larger than life, the stories and the science are equally compelling, and Dark Remedy
ultimately combines the best elements of journalism and myth. --Rob Lightner
From Publishers Weekly
Thalidomide, the drug notorious for causing deformities in infants during the late 1950s and early '60s, has been back in the news--amazingly, it has been found useful in treating a range of diseases from cancer and leprosy to AIDS. Combining Stephens's expertise as a scientist researching thalidomide and novelist and historian Brynner's (The Doomsday Report) firsthand experience as a thalidomide recipient (he was given the drug to treat t a rare inflammatory disease), this compelling tale documents the history of a drug originally offered as a "safe" alternative to barbiturates (which were used by suicides). Very soon, it came to be linked to nerve damage in adults and to "flipper-like" limbs in babies born to women who took the drug. An arduous legal battle ensued, and the authors nicely highlight such figures as the FDA's Frances Kelsey, who fought successfully against the drug being approved for use in the U.S., and pediatrician Widukind Lenz, who linked thalidomide to the birth defects. In particular, however, the authors successfully convey the necessity of placing an "absolute commitment to truth" ahead of all other considerations when testing, prescribing or selling a drug. "The monster was never thalidomide itself," they claim of the drug that sparked FDA reform. While this moving account offers a chilling glimpse of how the profit motive can negatively affect many lives, it also includes a straightforward presentation of Stephens's pioneering research with thalidomide--research that he hopes will contribute to developing a truly safe alternative. (Feb.)Forecast: Brynner is the late actor Yul Brynner's son. That will undoubtedly help bring publicity to this title, which will draw a wide range of readers interested in the ethics and science of medical research.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.