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Deutsches Technikmuseum - March

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The Websites of the donation Stiftung Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin at a glance:

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Exhibit of the Month March 2017

Photo: The photo shows a billboard in the form of an advertising column with a cone-shaped and overhanging blue roof. Possible uses for the medication are pictured in colourful, striking images that are in the 1950s style.

Advertising billboard for the over-the-counter sleeping and relaxant agent Contergan, circa 1958 © SDTB / Photo: Clemens Kirchner

"Good Luck
had a courier who lost a box filled with very strong sleeping pills but because they were the non-toxic Contergan brand he didn´t need to alert the police or the radio stations.
Better Luck,
however, came to the one who found it: no matter what he decided to do, no harm would come to him - just peace and quiet and a good night´s sleep! If a bad conscience, however, should drive him to some desperate type action, when he awakes he will realise that
Contergan
only brings you sleep and not any desperation at all."

Advertising column displaying the medication Contergan, 1958

From todays’ perspective, the glib text on this column advertising Contergan seems more than just starry-eyed.

It was just that emphasis on the drug’s purported harmlessness that led many pregnant women to not only take it for their sleeping problems but for their morning sickness as well.

When Contergan was introduced in October 1957 no prescription was required. It was only after deformities in newborns became increasing frequent that it was finally given prescription-only status in the summer of 1961, and completely withdrawn from the market the following November.

During the time the drug was available, 10,000 damaged babies were born worldwide, 4,000 of which were in Germany. By way of contrast, in the USA a zealous pharmacologist named Frances Oldham Kelsey was able to prevent the drug from obtaining market approval.

Photo: The picture shows striking and colourful 1950s-style images depicting possible uses for Contergan. A facetious text highlights the harmlessness and the variety of applications for this medication.

Overall view of the column’s poster ads. Please zoom! © SDTB / Photo: Clemens Kirchner

Scandal with far-reaching consequences

The scandal surrounding the drug directly impacted subsequent pharmaceutical laws and the approval process for medications. The first German law on medicinal products was enacted in 1961 and, as a further consequence of the Contergan scandal, revised in 1976.

Since then, there must be proof of a drug’s efficacy, quality and harmlessness before it can be approved for use. Even after the approval the pharmaceutical companies stay liable for the safety and quality of their products. They must evaluate side effects and also provide information or, if necessary, warn doctors and regulatory authorities. Comprehensive data on the packaging and the insert leaflet became compulsory.

The initially strict prohibitions against advertising sleeping pills and sedatives have in the meantime been relaxed.