Book Review

Michael Magazanik

Silent Shock: the men behind the thalidomide scandal and an Australian family’s long road to justice

Mabel Tsui

In focusing on the thalidomide drug disaster in Silent Shock, Michael Magazanik is certainly not the first author to write about this infamous tragedy, which is constantly cited as one of history’s worst pharmaceutical drug disasters. However, it is Magazanik’s ability to merge his legal expertise as a personal injury lawyer with his story-telling talents from his journalist background to present a compelling and humanistic narrative which sets Silent Shock apart from the crowd. Silent Shock fills a significant gap in the literature, and provides the reader with first-hand knowledge and understanding about the true extent, severity and reach of this tragedy.

Silent Shock starts at the beginning of it all: the birth of Lyn Rowe on 2 March 1962. Dr Dickinson, who was charged with delivering the baby, had clearly not anticipated also being the deliverer of bad news. His is a painful and emotional recollection of the events surrounding Lyn’s birth. ‘Shocking and disorienting’ is how Dr Dickinson felt upon seeing a little girl who had ‘only a torso and a head.’ The reader cannot help but feel sympathy towards him. With this preface, readers are also forewarned that this will not be an easy, nor pleasant story. Yet it is a necessary story, about a family’s long road to obtaining justice and redress for the injuries and loss one woman suffered through no fault of her own. Silent Shock is primarily Lyn’s story, and the book is concerned with presenting the humanistic side of the tragedy. The law, while relevant, is relegated to a supporting role. The major characters are the people: the victims, the corporations and the men behind these corporations. The central characters of the story are thalidomide survivor Lyn Rowe, her parents Wendy and Ian, and her family.

However, Silent Shock is also concerned with the men behind the tragedy: the owners and senior officers of the pharmaceutical companies who were responsible for the manufacture and distribution of the drug. Their callous disregard for their fellow human beings is only matched by their greed and desire to profit from the thalidomide sales. Despite the accumulating and weighty medical evidence from around the world that thalidomide had a teratogenic effect, these men steadfastly denied any allegations that thalidomide posed a danger to the foetus, only repeating a mantra that they themselves knew to be untrue: thalidomide was safe, ultra-safe. In a manner that can only be described as aggressive, they pushed thalidomide onto doctors and into hospitals, providing free samples to be passed onto unsuspecting patients. Salesmen were taught a simple mnemonic: SESH — ‘safe, effective sedative and hypnotic.’ In the United States, where the use of thalidomide was pending the Food and Drug Administration’s approval, the licensee Merrell introduced it into the country under the guise of conducting ‘clinical trials’, a move the FDA would describe as a ‘blatant and illegal sales push.’ Fortunately for US consumers, Dr Frances Kelsey’s demands for evidence of thalidomide’s safety and effectiveness, and Merrell’s refusal to respond to her, ensured that thalidomide would never be approved for use in the US. American children and families were spared from the disaster, and Silent Shock pays tribute to the FDA medical officer’s valiant and sustained efforts in putting safety first and always. Dr Frances Kelsey passed away in August 2015, about three months after Silent Shock was published.

This blind, unfounded and uncontrolled faith in the drug continued until 1961, when Dr Widukind Lenz wrote to the manufacturer Grunenthal, highlighting its potential toxicity. ‘I consider it necessary to withdraw the drug immediately from the market until its innocuousness as a teratogenic agent in man is proved with certainty,’ he wrote. (Magazanik credits Lenz, along with Australian practitioner Dr William McBride, as holding the dual distinction of having been the first medical practitioners to recognise thalidomide’s teratogenic effects.) In November 1961, Grunenthal finally (and grudgingly) withdrew the product from the market. The focus of the company then turned towards protection, specifically, protecting themselves and the company’s reputation. Magazanik notes that as recently as 2007, Grunenthal’s executive Sebastian Wirtz commented in relation to the tragedy that ‘…there was no way Grunenthal could have known that the sedative could have these dramatic effects. According to everything I have read and heard, there was no way the tragedy could have been avoided.’ Denial of culpability was and continues to be Grunenthal’s modus operandi; indeed, the second last chapter of the book depicts Grunenthal as it always has been: unremorseful and still ready to dismiss and fight any accusation of wrongdoing.

Yet if the senior executives of Grunenthal are unwilling to admit fault, redemption occurs through the actions of Grunenthal’s Australian licensee, Distillers, and its former pharmaceutical salesmen. Magazanik gives due credit to Distillers for their willingness to settle with the Rowe family, thereby avoiding litigation. Even if there were commercial considerations which meant the decision to settle would benefit the company, both Magazanik and lawyer Peter Gordon acknowledged that Distillers’ actions were ‘compassionate and understanding.’ Genuine and heartfelt attempts to right past wrongs lie with the former employees of Distillers: men who clearly did not intend to commit any wrong, but merely followed instructions and did their job. However, upon realising the extent of injury and harm caused by the product they had once touted to the public, they could not, in good conscience, remain silent or feign ignorance. There is a humourous tale of one Distillers’ sales representative who does not appear to have been a pleasant man overall; he once gifted his wife drinking glasses he had stolen from a hotel. Yet, Magazanik notes, this same man was ‘so overcome by guilt…that he turned up at an early meeting’ with the families afflicted by thalidomide. In one sense, Silent Shock is an opportunity for these men to tell their side of the story, and to atone for the wrongs of their actions and those of their former employer. They were ‘interested in Lyn Rowe’s personal story and empathetic about her circumstances.’ More importantly, they readily provided powerful evidence and witness testimony which established knowledge on the part of the industry, thus boosting the Rowe family’s claim. Finally, there is another notable character whose rebellious gesture almost serves to redeem his current and older self: a younger Rupert Murdoch who, in the 1970s, had anonymously bankrolled an operation where posters denouncing the actions of Distillers (who was also the UK licensee) were plastered all over London.

Silent Shock also pays tribute to the hard work and sacrifices made by those who work in the field of law. A stereotypical lawyer is demonised in popular culture as greedy, dishonest or unethical; personal injury lawyers are sometimes referred to as ambulance chasers. Yet if Silent Shock reveals the ugliness of the pharmaceutical industry, it also brings out the best in those belonging to the legal profession who are driven by the goal of obtaining justice for innocent victims. Peter Gordon, whose hard work and confidence kick-started the process for Lyn, and who supervised the case until its settlement. Magaznik and his team, with their good working relationship, humor and overall positive morale make the work of plaintiff lawyers seem (almost) fun, appealing and, most importantly, meaningful. These advocates had always ensured that their cause was bigger than revenge, victory or pure economic gain — it was about justice for their clients. As Magaznik observed, ‘you can’t eat revenge. … Our first and deepest obligation was to our clients, almost all of whom had desperate material needs.’ These are the lawyers who give lawyers a good name.

Ultimately however, the strength and love demonstrated by the Rowe family act as the saving grace for all involved. At the beginning of the story, the reader will feel sympathy for the doctor who delivered Lyn; sympathy which is almost immediately replaced by a sense of utmost respect and admiration for Wendy Rowe. Upon being told that her daughter had no arms and no legs, she calmly responds with, ‘we’ll just have to look after her very well then.’ From there, and throughout the rest of this book, the family’s dedication and resilience can be observed through their struggles and sacrifices made over the course of almost six decades. With grace, humor and love, they ensure Lyn is provided with the basic right to life and dignity. Lyn Rowe is unfailingly cheerful at all times. There are countless examples of her optimism and enthusiasm for her work, her life and her family. She uses jokes in order to ease her parents’ worries about her fate when they are gone, telling her father, ‘if you’re no longer here then you won’t have to worry about it Bugsy.’ ‘You have to laugh.’ She says. ‘What else is there?’ The reader can only admire Lyn’s selflessness and choice to look outward and upward, and her refusal to be ‘put in cotton wool.’

Finally, it is love, that universal theme, which shines through in Silent Shock. Despite what Magazanik rightfully describes as ‘an exceptionally difficult journey’, only made more challenging with the onset of age-related health problems, Wendy and Ian Rowe’s love for their daughter remain unconditional and selfless. Their daily carer routine, commencing at 6:30 am, is clearly demanding in a physical sense, and is made more ‘confronting’ when one remembers that the carers are two elderly people in their late seventies. Readers are told early on that in 2012, at the age of seventy-four years old, Wendy had to start lifting weights to build sufficient muscle so that she could continue to physically manoeuvre her daughter around. Yet her calm and resolute mentality at the time of Lyn’s birth, though bruised and beaten over the fifty years, has never wavered. As for Ian, one cannot help but admire his quiet resilience. Despite a history of anxiety, and a breakdown in 1983 resulting from family demands and stress, he became an effective spokesperson for the family during the period of litigation, always confident and assured. While the couple lament about the lack of mental-health treatment or general support in the 1980s (a sign of the times), it is a testament to their strength, faith and love that their family and marriage remained intact. Magazanik expresses his admiration at how the family has done ‘remarkably well’, in contrast to the fate of other thalidomide afflicted families. One father had threatened to leave if his wife brought ‘that monster home.’ Perhaps Wendy and Ian Rowe’s mentality is best summed up by Merrilyn, the oldest Rowe child: ‘Mum and Dad did the best they could in a very difficult situation.’

The book closes with Wendy’s musings about the past fifty years and Lyn’s life, and her optimism in willing to ‘find the good.’ She, Ian and Lyn embody the positivity and stoicism which was required in order to survive one of the most horrific medical tragedies in modern history, and end the story on a beautiful note. In writing Silent Shock, Magazanik has woven together a beautiful story about a family whose actions and decisions serve to remind us that despite all the sins and vices which do exist in this world, one can choose to turn events ‘into a positive or a negative’.