Primodos : The secret drug scandal.

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About this work


An investigation into whether pregnancy test pills prescribed in the 1960s and 1970s caused birth defects on an unprecedented scale. The founder of the Campaign Group, Robin Hayes, talks about his experience as a father with his son who was born with a heart defect (there is archive footage of the young boy). Their GP prescribed Primodos tablets to establish pregnancy. Archive footage outlines how prior to these new diagnostic tools, samples of urine were sent and injected into toads. A German company, Schering, was responsible for developing and licensing this product, a synthetic hormone. These high dose hormones were likely to cause born defects. Nicky Gubbins, now an adult, was born with physical disabilities (facial and spinal) caused by her mother taking the drug. Defects were first identified in 1967; a paediatrician, Dr Isabel Gal identified a link between the hormones and spinal defects. In fact the licence for Primodos as a pregnancy test was removed in 1970 but the drug was still available with warnings ('contraindications') until 1978. Dr Gal comments on her battle to get the drug removed. Robin Hayes set up a campaign group as a result of seeing an article in The Sunday Times. The group campaigned for the removal of the drug and for compensation. The stakes were staked against the campaign; in 1982 the case was dropped (and Hayes' son died suddenly at 10 years old). New information has subsequently become available and the children, now adults, born with physical problems want to resume their battle. Karl Murphy was a child affected by the drug; he shares his archive about Primodos. Schering is now part of the German pharmaceutical giant Bayer. New archived documents have now become available from Schering. Dr Bill Inman former, head of the regulator, is presented in an unflattering light (a short clip of Inman from the Wellcome Library 'The committee on the safety of medicines. A personal account from Prof. Bill Inman' is shown). John Abraham, Professor of Sociology, King's College London, is critical of Inman's role in destroying the findings and the closeness of the regulator to the organisations it should have been scrutinising. Dr Ulrich Moebius was a former employee of Schering and set up a magazine warning about the dangers of certain drugs including Primodos; there is evidence that there were plans to smear his name. Nichola Walton, also affected by the drug, has carried out her own research. There is archive evidence that Dr Bill Inman was scathing and dismissive of Dr Gal's evidence. The campaign group have not discovered any evidence of toxicology tests in the UK or Germany, measures made after the thalidomide scandal. Meanwhile Dr Neil Vargesson, Institute of Medical Sciences, University of Aberdeen, has been testing the hormone on Zebrafish; he discovered heart and fin defects. Dr Sharon Messenger appears briefly; some of the archives are held at the Royal College of General Practitioners (research data was withheld). In other territories the drug has been used as an aid to chemical abortion with the knowledge of Schering; Tobias Arndt has been researching this and discovered that South Korean prostitutes were using the drug. In the USA, Squibb created a similar drug (Gestest) under licence and a family pursued a legal case against the company. Like Primodos, the drug was not tested on pregnant animals. There was an out of court settlement. Unfortunately, as an adult their son took his own life. At the trial, another German company (which turns out to be Schering as discovered by Wellcome Trust funded researcher Jesse Olszynko-Gryn) was present auditing the outcome. The Medical Regulator is due to report on Primodos in 2017.



Physical description

1 DVD (46 min.) : sound, colour ; 12 cm

Copyright note

Sky UK Limited 2017.


Originally broadcast on 21st March 2017 on Sky Atlantic.
Archive footage of urine samples injected into toads (Xenopus test) is courtesy of the Novartis Film Archive.
Other research material relating to Primodos is available in the library; Drug advertising ephemera. Box 85 (EPH359). Material on the Xenopus test SA/BMA/D.156:Box 169 and SA/FPA/C/G/9/1/17:O/S 8 as well as a pamphlet, 'The introduction of 'Xenopus laevis' into developmental biology : of empire, pregnancy testing and ribosomal genes', John B. Gurdon and Nick Hopwood.

Creator/production credits

Produced by Liz Lane.
Presented by Jason Farrell.



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