'I am afraid all companies are pretty heartless'
Thalidomide packaging now features warnings about the danger of birth defects.
''WE MUST take every precaution to see that no news of this information leaks out.''
This was the reaction of a senior Australian-based executive of Distillers Company (Biochemicals) Ltd, the British-owned marketer and distributor of thalidomide, when it was decided in December 1961 to withdraw the drug from sale amid growing internal concerns it was causing deformities and deaths in babies here and overseas.
''Any such leakage could do no possible good and might cause something of a panic amongst expectant mothers … there is no point in unduly injuring our future interests by taking any action which would be in the nature of a self-sacrifice … I see no reason for creating trouble for ourselves, which will help nobody, by stating that the weight of evidence [for a product recall] comes from Australia,'' the Distillers executive, who is referred to in the documents as Mr Poole, wrote to a colleague.
The December 1, 1961 letter highlighting Mr Poole's fear about the full extent of thalidomide's disastrous effects on foetuses becoming public is in internal company files obtained by The Age.
The files, several of which have been reproduced verbatim in affidavit material lodged in the Victorian Supreme Court, give a unique insight into how the men responsible for manufacturing and selling the thalidomide drugs responded to one of modern medicine's worst crises.
Another letter by Mr Poole to a colleague in March 1962 shows he was already aware of the potential financial impacts on the company if it were to accept responsibility.
''Obviously to accept responsibility in one case would at least place a moral responsibility on the company to accept responsibility in all cases,'' he wrote.
''If I had the power, I think I would think very hard before refusing to offer what assistance I could, but I am afraid all companies are pretty heartless when it comes to matters of this kind.''