'Thalidomide' doctor alleges plot to gag him

IN THE wake of a dramatic fall from grace, William McBride, the Australian doctor who first alerted the world to the dangers of the thalidomide anti-nausea drug, has accused international drug companies of a conspiracy to bring about his demise.

Dr McBride, once an Australian medical hero, was struck off the country's medical register and declared unfit to practise last year after being found guilty of scientific fraud. The charges related to experiments in 1980 in which he sought to prove that Debendox, another anti-morning- sickness drug, caused birth deformities as thalidomide had done 20 years earlier.

Dr McBride's letter to the Lancet in 1961, following his observations of pregnant women in his Sydney practice, was the first public warning that thalidomide could cause deformities in the babies of women who took it during pregnancy. The drug was later withdrawn from the market and Distillers, the company which sold it, faced an avalanche of legal cases in Britain and Australia.

As Dr McBride awaits the verdict from an appeal against his punishment over the Debendox affair, he opened another controversy yesterday with the publication of a book in which he claims that Marion Merrell Dow, the United States pharmaceuticals giant which marketed Debendox, worked in concert with an unnamed 'mole' in Australia to stop him from speaking out against the drug.

Dr McBride appeared as a witness against Merrell Dow in several US court cases during the 1980s in which parents blamed Debendox for deformities in their children. The flood of threatened litigation in the US, Britain and elsewhere became so heavy that Merrell Dow withdrew Debendox from the market in 1983, saying it could not afford the legal bills. The company has won 30 out of 32 cases which have gone through the US courts; two cases are on appeal.

Dr McBride's downfall began in 1987 when a radio science programme in Australia accused him of faking experiments with scopolamine, a travel-sickness drug which has similar actions to a component of Debendox. An inquiry set up by Foundation 41, the Sydney research institute which he headed (named after the 40 weeks of pregnancy and the first week after birth), found the case against him proved.

The New South Wales medical tribunal launched an inquiry into the same charges. It dragged on for three and a half years, ending with Dr McBride being struck off last July. In his book, Killing the Messenger, Dr McBride writes: 'Without flattering myself, I am sure the decision was received with pleasure by many of the international drug companies.'

He describes how John Crabb, a retired rear-admiral in the Australian navy, and then doing intelligence work, alerted him in 1980 of a bizarre event. According to Mr Crabb, George Barnes, a Los Angeles private investigator, approached him, saying that he had been hired by a pharmaceutical company against which Dr McBride was then giving evidence in the US; he was seeking information about the doctor. Mr Barnes said that 'money was no object'. Dr McBride writes: 'Admiral Crabb warned me that he was sure Barnes would make contact with someone in Australia who would head the McBride operation, the object of which was to procure evidence adverse to me.'

Mr Crabb confirmed the book's account yesterday. But John Baker, managing director of Marion Merrell Dow in Australia, dismissed the conspiracy theory. 'It is entirely incorrect. There is no factual basis for it. The company isn't in the business of encouraging conspiracies. We had nothing to do with the inquiry into Dr McBride. We shall be closely examining his book and reserving our right to take whatever action.'

Mr Baker said that the scientific evidence in favour of Debendox was 'totally overwhelming'.

After one of the most spectacular falls the medical world has seen, Dr McBride remained unrepentant yesterday over his latest allegations. His legal bills of 2.2m Australian dollars ( pounds 1m) to cover the inquiry forced him to sell his three homes and he is now largely shunned by the society which once lauded him.

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