MiSTed: The Lesson of Thalidomide, Part 3 of 4

Part 1, introduction and John Glenn.

Part 2, German cows and precognition.

John W Campbell’s gotten an enormous reputation in science fiction circles, and he deserves both sides of that. He did bring a remarkable professionalism to the field in the 1940s. But he was also a crank. He was one of the first enthusiasts of Dianetics, and a startling cross-section of writers in the 1950s wrote that, or mild variants of it, into their published stories. He was sure of the Dean Drive, a gadget that could move objects in defiance of the laws of conservation of momentum, of angular momentum, and of energy. He was so sure of the Heironymous Machine, a magic-energy machine, that their inventor, Thomas Galen Heironymous, thought Campbell was taking it too far. The time has largely faded when science fiction could include telepathy and psionics superpowers and such. But that there was a time when even “hard”, scientifically rigorous, science fiction could include such was largely Campbell’s doing. Also, yes, John W Campbell was quite sexist, but at least you aren’t hearing his views on the races.

> A German doctor was the first to suspect
> thalidomide of its actual disastrous characteristic —

CROW: Its spelling.

> and it was November 15, 1961 that he first warned the
> Grunenthal company that he suspected their thalidomide
> preparation of being responsible for the “seal-baby”
> epidemic then appearing in Germany.

CROW: To sold-out crowds!

MIKE: Well, I’m feeling worse about myself now.

> At this time his data
> was still too scanty for him to make a definite
> statement.

TOM: As he had never been a baby himself.

> His first public discussion — “public” in
> the sense that it was made to an official medical group
> meeting in Germany —

CROW: You know, the guys.

> was on November 20, 1961 — and
> then he was not in a position to state that thalidomide
> was responsible, but merely to say he strongly suspected
> a certain drug, which he did not name.

MIKE: So he explained it in Pig Dutch.

TOM: Or as the Germans call it, ‘Dutch’.

> At this point in the development of the problem,
> data came in very rapidly;

CROW: Atomic weight of tungsten!

MIKE: Winners of the last twelve Canadian Football League championships!

TOM: Running time of every Hanna-Barbera cartoon ever!

CROW: All this and more on Rapid Data Coming In!

> within a month thalidomide’s
> danger was clearly recognized . . . and only then did Dr.
> Kelsey’s inaction on the licensing application become
> absolutely defensible.

MIKE: And we’ll get her for it!

> That the United States was saved from this
> disaster was not — repeat not —

TOM: Not not means yes, right?


TOM: What’s this mean now, then?

> due to any
> scientific, logical, reasonable or even justifiable
> action.

CROW: It was cause of girl cooties!

> It was due to those totally indefensible and
> anathematized things, “a hunch” and/or “woman’s
> intuition.”

TOM: It’s not fair, they didn’t even ask me!

> That Dr. Kelsey’s hunch was one hundred per cent
> valid has nothing whatever to do with whether it was
> logical;

CROW: Unless she had some reason, but that’s just crazy mad-man talk.

> for all I can know, she may have perfect and
> reliable trans-temporal clairvoyance, so that, in 1960,
> she was reading the medical reports published in late
> 1961, and basing her decisions very logically on that
> trans-temporal data.

CROW: I can’t think of any other way a woman could possibly have been right than if the laws of cause and effect don’t actually hold!

> The essential point is that no possible logical
> method can prevent another thalidomide-like disaster.

MIKE: So you’re bad people, thanking her for preventing this one!

> If the Federal Drug Administration can recruit a
> staff of expert crystal-ball gazers, tea-leaf readers and
> Tarot-card shufflers, it might be possible for the F.D.A.
> to rule correctly on all future drug licensing
> applications.

TOM: Or they could employ normal drug-testing procedures.

> Nothing short of genuine precognition can
> prevent such disasters completely.
> Let’s imagine the most completely and perfectly
> conservative, cautious, experimental program

CROW: And give it to NBC to rebuild their Thursday nights.

MIKE: Must-see comedies. Tch.

> we can think
> of that will still allow some progress in medicine.

MIKE: Or we could look up the actual FDA procedures for 1960, but that would be crazy talk.

> Suppose we require the following steps:

TOM: [ As Groucho Marx ] The first part of the first step shall be known in this contract as the first part of the first step.

> 1. Careful and complete animal testing before any
> human testing is permitted.

CROW: Oh, wait, also first we come up with a drug. So that’s number zero then, OK? Or do we have to renumber everything now?

> 2. A two-year test period on a very limited
> number of human beings so that,

TOM: Do we get to name which human beings we test on?

MIKE: Are you thinking me or are you thinking of some mildly annoying celebrity?

> if there is some joker in
> the deck,

TOM: Yeah, I guess I’m thinking ‘both’.

MIKE: Be nice.

> it will afflict only a small number of people
> at worst.

CROW: Plus if it gives people superpowers we’ll want it to be to a small enough group they can form a kind of family dynamic.

> 3. A second two-year test on a larger number of
> patients — say about ten thousand people.

TOM: The size of a small town, say. We’ll hold lotteries to pick which is the lucky town, and they’ll be glad for it because they can help John Glenn die in space this way.

> 4. Released as a prescription medication only for
> another two-year period, so that close observation can be
> maintained.
> Sounds reasonable and conservative?

CROW: As long as I don’t know the actual standards? Sure, what the heck, why not?

> And yet there
> are a few known instances where a substance has a
> time-bomb effect so delayed that as much as fifteen years
> may elapse before the deadly effect appears.

TOM: Wait, we need to test time bombs on people?

MIKE: We need to test them on time.

> Beryllium
> dust poisoning is one example of a time-delay bomb.

CROW: And if the time bomb works we’ll be able to vanquish whole hours!

TOM: Finally Wednesdays will tremble before our might!

> If
> you inhale BeO dust, it definitely won’t hurt you a bit
> right away

MIKE: Apart from how it makes your face fall off, but many people go on to productive lives with no face whatsoever.

> — and cases of a fifteen-year delay have
> been reported.

TOM: But they’re unscientific reports so don’t act on them!

> Inasmuch as we now have pretty good indication
> that genetic information is carried as a chemical code on
> protein molecules,

TOM: If you don’t know that DNA is not a protein.

CROW: The father of hard science fiction, ladies and gentlemen.

> it’s conceivable that a substance
> might be discovered which affected only the genetic cells
> of unborn babies.

MIKE: Ya think?

> That one would first begin to show its
> effects about eighteen years after it went into use.

TOM: If some girls want to wait to age twenty or even twenty-two before having babies they’re just evil people holding up the course of science.

CROW: Wait, don’t babies just need nine months to grow?

> (Yes, some girls affected by the stuff would start having
> babies at thirteen or so

CROW: Even twelve, if you want to sound like a creepy guy.

MIKE: Why … why do you?

CROW: I forget.

> . . . but not until a large
> number of affected individuals had babies would the
> statistical numbers become large enough for credibility
> and identification.)
> So even a very, very cautious five-year system
> wouldn’t catch all the time-bomb drugs.

MIKE: And that’s why it’s a bad idea we catch any!

> And we can’t run a fifty-year program like that!

CROW: Or … twenty-two years, from what he just described, but that’s close enough to fifty, right?

TOM: Hey, 22, 50, we’re not talking exact numbers here, we’re talking science.

> If someone finds a cancer cure today, will the world wait
> until our grandchildren demonstrate that it has no hidden
> menace, do you think?

MIKE: Well, not if they’re born with too many genetic defects to live, anyway.

CROW: That sure doesn’t make me want to kill myself, Mike. Thanks.

> And as to that cautious, two-year-plus-two-year
> program . . . thalidomide would have been licensed with
> flying colors!

TOM: Apart from the deformed babies that turned up within the first two years of its use.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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