Jennifer Vanderbes presents Wonder Drug: The Secret History of Thalidomide in America and Its Hidden Victims, in conversation with Meghan O’Rourke

June 27th
McNally Jackson Seaport
RSVP Required — see below

A riveting account of the most notorious drug of the twentieth century and the never-before-told story of its American survivors.

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

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.

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 . . . Meticulously researched and emotionally powerful, Vanderbes’s book uncovers layers of corporate negligence, government in action, greed, and deception, shedding light on the terrible consequences. 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 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.




Meghan O’Rourke is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness and The Long Goodbye, as well as the poetry collections Sun In Days, Once, and Halflife. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, and more. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Radcliffe Fellowship, and a Whiting Nonfiction Award, she resides in New Haven, where she teaches at Yale University and is the editor of The Yale Review.


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