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“A shocking saga of pharmaceutical malpractice . . . Wonder Drug is both a first-rate medical thriller and the searing account of a forgotten American tragedy.”—Patrick Radden Keefe, author of Empire of Pain
A “fascinating and compassionate” (People) account of the most notorious drug of the twentieth century and the never-before-told story of its American survivors.
Longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal
In 1959, a Cincinnati pharmaceutical firm, the William S. Merrell Company, quietly began distributing samples of an exciting new wonder drug already popular around the world. Touted as a sedative without risks, thalidomide was handed out freely, under the guise of clinical trials, by doctors who believed approval by the Food and Drug Administration was imminent.
But in 1960, when the application for thalidomide landed on the desk of FDA medical reviewer Frances Kelsey, she quickly grew suspicious. When she learned that the drug was causing severe birth abnormalities abroad, she and a team of dedicated doctors, parents, and journalists fought tirelessly to block its authorization in the United States and stop its sale around the world.
Jennifer Vanderbes set out to write about this FDA success story only to discover a sinister truth that had been buried for decades: For more than five years, several American pharmaceutical firms had distributed unmarked thalidomide samples in shoddy clinical trials, reaching tens of thousands of unwitting patients, including hundreds of pregnant women.
As Vanderbes examined government and corporate archives, probed court records, and interviewed hundreds of key players, she unearthed an even more stunning find: Scores of Americans had likely been harmed by the drug. Deceived by the pharmaceutical firms, betrayed by doctors, and ignored by the government, most of these Americans had spent their lives unaware that thalidomide had caused their birth defects.
Now, for the first time, this shocking episode in American history is brought to light. Wonder Drug gives voice to the unrecognized victims of this epic scandal and exposes the deceptive practices of Big Pharma that continue to endanger lives today.
About the Author
Jennifer Vanderbes is a novelist, journalist, and screenwriter whose work has been translated into sixteen languages. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Granta, and Best New American Voices. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and was named a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar for her work on Wonder Drug.
“A story with real heroes—and real villains. Wonder Drug will leave you grateful for strong-minded scientists and epidemiology nerds—people who actually take the time to look at the data—and for dedicated pediatricians, parents who won’t take no for an answer and curious, persistent, investigative journalists like Vanderbes who can follow even long-buried and carefully hidden stories that need to be told.”—The Washington Post
“What really took place in the U.S. in the early 1960s was much more harrowing than we remember, as Jennifer Vanderbes makes clear in her riveting new book . . . Vanderbes tells her story with verve, power, and empathy, adding weight by interpolating the stories of victims throughout, and coming back to them at length toward the book’s conclusion.”—Harvard Public Health Magazine
“Jennifer Vanderbes’s deft and thorough Wonder Drug maps the thalidomide tragedy. The action shifts from one country to the next in the manner of a John le Carré thriller. Coming hot on the heels of a documentary, it is hoped the U.S. government will own up to its errors and ensure recognition and adequate support for the survivors—the group estimate they number around 100—whose bodies were literally test beds for modern drug safety.”—The Globe and Mail
“Wonder Drug is both a first-rate medical thriller and the searing account of a forgotten American tragedy. Drawing on six years of groundbreaking research and guided by a keen eye for the indelible detail and an unwavering moral conviction, Jennifer Vanderbes has produced a shocking saga of pharmaceutical malpractice.”—Patrick Radden Keefe, New York Times bestselling author of Empire of Pain
“Wonder Drug is a tale of scientific detective work, corporate corruption on a grand scale, and human resilience in the face of repudiation and tragedy. This is narrative nonfiction at its most compelling.”—Margot Lee Shetterly, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Hidden Figures
“A devastating and hard-to-put-down exposé of the thalidomide tragedy . . . Wonder Drug is not only a page-turner but also a much-needed call for accountability and justice—an essential addition to ourunderstanding of medical history.”—Meghan O’Rourke, New York Times bestselling author of The Invisible Kingdom
“Jennifer Vanderbes’s Wonder Drug is an utterly engrossing, thrilling, and horrifying look at both a shocking episode in the history of Big Pharma and the intersection of medicine, profit, and government bureaucracy.”—Phil Klay, National Book Award–winning author of Redeployment
“Vanderbes’s thorough investigative work and her lucid prose bring to life a little-known American tragedy. Wonder Drug is a compelling read and reminds us why regulatory scrutiny of new drugs matters.”—Abraham Verghese, New York Times bestselling author of Cutting for Stone
“A powerful and deeply reported book . . . Vanderbes’s dogged investigation has finally exposed the true scale of this public health catastrophe, giving us an important story that honors unsung victims and heroes while blowing the lid off decades of cover-up.”—Charles Graeber, New York Times bestselling author of The Good Nurse
“A deeply researched and chilling must-read. Journalist and novelist Vanderbes profiles one of the most notorious drugs in history: thalidomide.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“This is a medical must read. Show, don’t tell journalism at its best.”—Booklist, starred review
“Riveting. Suspenseful. A significant work about a horrifying example of widespread pharmaceutical negligence.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review