Intended for healthcare professionals


William McBride: alerted the world to the dangers of thalidomide in fetal development

BMJ 2018; 362 doi: (Published 06 August 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;362:k3415
  1. Ned Stafford
  1. Hamburg
  1. ns{at}

In December 1961, the Australian obstetrician William McBride warned in a letter to the Lancet that he had observed “multiple severe abnormalities” in babies delivered from women who had taken the drug thalidomide during pregnancy.1 He concluded his letter by asking: “Have any of your readers seen similar abnormalities in babies delivered of women who have taken this drug during pregnancy?”

The letter, thought to be the first published suggestion from a doctor of teratogenicity of thalidomide in humans, was brief—only five sentences. McBride’s concerns about thalidomide were subsequently confirmed by researchers in Europe, and the drug was banned around the world, saving countless infants from being born with birth defects.

An article in The BMJ in 2016 about a documentary film chronicling the lives of people who had birth defects as a result of the drug stated: “The thalidomide scandal stands as one of the worst ever medical disasters.”2

Global recognition

For helping alert the world to the dangers of thalidomide taken during pregnancy, McBride gained global recognition. In his native Australia he was hailed as a national hero, and a glow of honour hovered over him for the following three decades. He had a thriving practice in Sydney, and he received a CBE in 1969 and the Order of Australia in 1977.

But a later chapter of McBride’s life was not so pleasant. In 1993, at the age of 65, McBride was found guilty of scientific fraud by a medical tribunal for knowingly publishing false and misleading research. He was removed from the medical register.3

William Griffith McBride was born on 25 May 1927 in Sydney, but because of his mother’s ill health he spent much of his childhood living with an aunt on a dairy farm. He studied medicine at Sydney University Medical School. After qualifying …

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