November 28, 2023

This wonder drug caused many Australians a life of pain. Now they’re getting an apology

By Natassia Chrysanthos
November 29, 2023 — 4.30am
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It was the pregnancy wonder drug that promised Australian women in the early 1960s a quick fix for their side effects – an over-the-counter cure-all for everything from morning sickness to insomnia.

But soon after, babies across Australia were born with shortened or absent limbs, blindness, deafness or malformed internal organs. That wonder drug, thalidomide, became known as one of the world’s worst pharmaceutical disasters.

Thalidomide survivor and activist Lisa McManus says the federal government’s apology has come too late for many families.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

The tragedy changed everything about the way medicines were tested and approved in Australia, where there had been no system for evaluating drugs before they hit the market. It eventually spawned the Therapeutic Goods Administration, the well-known agency now charged with ensuring medicines in Australia are of the highest standards.

But it has also caused survivors a lifetime of pain, and the federal government has never said sorry for its role in the disaster. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will change that, with a long-awaited apology to thalidomide survivors and their families.

Lisa McManus, 60, was one of those thalidomide babies. She’s spent years leading the fight for compensation for Australia’s community of survivors. There are 146 registered with the government, but the true number is unknown.


“It’s been a long, arduous, relentless battle that should never have needed to happen, and it’s certainly a battle that shouldn’t have been left to someone like me,” McManus says.

“For 60 plus years, the government haven’t looked at us, and I honestly believe that they still wouldn’t be looking at us today had I not grabbed them by the ears and dragged them, kicking and screaming, to get them to this point.”

McManus says some known survivors will attend the national apology – the first since the apology to victims of child sex abuse in 2018 – while some have boycotted and others will watch with mixed emotions.


“It’s too little, too late,” she says.

Thalidomide products arrived in Australia in 1960 and were promoted to hospitals and chemists, especially around Sydney. While the mothers who took it felt better, the drug crossed the placenta and affected the blood supply that fed the rapidly multiplying cells of their unborn children.

More than 10,000 children worldwide were born with deformities, and about four in 10 of them died within a year.

In 1961, the Australian obstetrician Dr William McBride was one of the first doctors to start making links between thalidomide use in pregnancy and birth defects. While distributors gradually withdrew drugs from sale, the public was not alerted and thalidomide stock remained in Australia.

It was not until August 1962 that the Australian government formally banned the import of thalidomide.

At that point, Mark Chorlton, 62, was already one year old. The first year of his life had been touch and go; he weighed less at six months than he did at birth.

Mark Chorlton at age four, in 1965.Credit: Fairfax Media

The experience was shocking for his then-26-year-old mother, who was feeding him when he started spurting blood at three-days-old. It had an enduring impact on his family.

Chorlton’s sister, who was three years older than him, became isolated as his mother’s focus gravitated around his illnesses. His father – “who never really got over the fact that I was disabled” – divorced from his mother 10 years later.

“It wasn’t unusual. I know a large number of family breakdowns occurred because of thalidomide,” Chorlton says.

There were other issues he didn’t become aware of until later on – such as his mother’s fight to enrol him in a mainstream school.

Chorlton went on to work as a metallurgist at BHP, then studied psychology and became a lecturer. But his chronic pain from spinal issues – which is less visible than his shortened arms and fewer fingers, but more debilitating – disrupted his working life and led him to retire for medical reasons at 48.

So many of those that are deserving to have heard these words have died … the apology, I think, will only be as genuine as the actions that follow.”

Lisa McManus, thalidomide survivor and campaigner

Years of advocacy were also taxing: descending on Canberra, meeting government representatives, urging the importance of their plight.

“I think the difficulties got to some of us. It certainly was getting [to] myself, this level of anxiety and stress. It’s felt very much like putting one’s head up against a wall at times,” he says.

“One of the bits in our mind is that we’re all ageing faster than our chronological age; our physical capabilities were deteriorating. There were certainly a number of thalidomiders [a term used by many survivors to describe themselves] who’ve never really been able to work. So financially, there were difficulties for people.”


Anthony Albanese said the thalidomide tragedy was “a dark chapter in the history of our nation and the world”.

“In giving this apology, we will acknowledge all those babies who died and the families who mourn them, as well as those who survived but whose lives were made so much harder by the effects of this terrible drug,” he said.

“This moment is a long overdue national acknowledgement of all they have endured and all they have fought for.”

But McManus says she and many other survivors will be waiting to see what happens afterwards. While some compensation has been secured, she wants survivors’ pensions tied to inflation and the registration process reopened, so others can join.

“Up until 2014, we thought that there was only 40 of us … To think that there aren’t more out there in the community is just arrogant and ignorant,” she says.

“So many of those that are deserving to have heard these words [in the apology] have died. Most of our parents, even [some of] our survivors, have died waiting for this day to happen. So the apology I think will only be as genuine as the actions that follow.”

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Natassia Chrysanthos is the federal health reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra.Connect via Twitter or email.


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