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March 16, 1990

Thalidomide Has 37-Year History

JAMA. 1990;263(11):1474. doi:10.1001/jama.1990.03440110028006

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THALIDOMIDE, a glutamic acid derivative (α[N=Phthalimido] glutarimide), was first described in 1953 by the Swiss pharmaceutical firm Ciba.

The company discontinued its research on the drug when no pharmacologic effects were apparent. Despite Ciba's decision, Chemie Grünenthal, a Federal Republic of (West) Germany pharmaceutical company, synthesized the drug in 1954 and undertook its development.

This company first marketed thalidomide as an anticonvulsant for the treatment of epilepsy. The drug proved ineffective for this purpose, but it did cause sleep.

Thereafter, it was marketed as a hypnotic, sedative, and tranquilizer. It had prompt action and provided a deep sleep with no hangover; moreover, large doses alone did not cause death, so it was an unlikely vehicle for suicide.

Thalidomide soon became West Germany's most popular sleeping pill and was widely used in hospitals and mental institutions. By the end of the 1950s, 14 pharmaceutical companies were marketing thalidomide in