Final ignominy for Australian hero of thalidomide scandal sca
Saturday 18 February 1995
The High Court refused Dr McBride leave to appeal, closing the last chapter on one of the most spectacular downfalls in the medical world. Once an Australian hero and feted internationally, Dr McBride, 67, had been fighting for eight years to clear his name over charges that he faked experiments involving Debendox, another anti-morning sickness drug which he believed caused birth defects, as thalidomide had done 20 years earlier.
Dr McBride's letter to the Lancet in 1961 was the first public warning that thalidomide could cause defects in the babies of women who took it during pregnancy. The drug was withdrawn from sale, and Distillers, the company which marketed it, faced an avalanche of litigation in Britain and Australasia.
Dr McBride's fall began in 1987 when a programme made by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation accused him of secretly altering the results of experiments with scopolamine, a travel-sickness drug with similar actions to a component of Debendox.
The accusations rocked the medical world. Dr McBride had already appeared as a witness against Merrell Dow, the United States pharmaceuticals giant which marketed Debendox, in several US court cases brought by parents who blamed Debendox for deformities in their children. Merrell Dow withdrew Debendox from sale in 1983, but the company has since won 30 out of 32 cases in the US courts.
A medical tribunal inquiry in Australia, lasting more than three years, found the charges against Dr McBride proved in 1993 and ordered him stuck off the medical register. Dr McBride has alleged that he is a victim of a conspiracy by international drug companies.
Yesterday's failed appeal means that Dr McBride stands permanently deregistered and branded of unfit character to practise medicine. But not one of his former patients had ever lodged a complaint against him and no inquiry found him guilty of any misconduct as a practising doctor.
"I'm very disappointed," he said afterwards. "Drug offenders are allowed to apply for rehabilitation after three years, but I wasn't offered even that option."
Phillip Knightley, the journalist and author who helped to expose the thalidomide scandal 20 years ago, wrote last year in Dr McBride's book, Killing the Messenger: "There was no logic in the cutting down of William McBride. It was a late 20th century witch-hunt, conducted in a primitive manner, a mass urge to destroy the idol that Australians themselves had created."
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