7 December 2007
Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir, Governor of NSW and Chancellor of the University of Sydney, last night told an extraordinary gathering of Women's College alumni of her brush with thalidomide during her second pregnancy.
Professor Bashir was launching Beyond Thalidomide: Birth Defects Explained by Adjunct Associate Professor Janet McCredie AM. Dr McCredie is an Honorary Fellow of the University of Sydney.
The thalidomide epidemic refers to the extraordinary emergence of bizarre limb deformities in newborn babies between 1956 and 1962.
And although thalidomide was identified as the cause, it's never been understood how thalidomide mutilated the embryo.
"Because nobody was looking in the right place," Dr McCredie said. "Lots of experimental work was done and lots of theories were launched. What I did, which amazingly no one else had done, was to look at the nerves of the embryo, and that's where we found the pathology."
Dr McCredie explained that thalidomide is a sensory nerve poison that in adults causes tingling and numbness. "First in your feet - they're your longest nerves - and then in your fingers. You might get shooting pains down your arms and legs. In due course, you'd lose some of your functions such as balance.
"The embryo needs nerves to stimulate cell division, so if you knock the nerves out you stop the cell division in the next bit of embryo."
"This is an exceptional publication which responds to a serious deficit in the literature and which is derived from Janet's own exemplary and dedicated research conducted over a 35 year period," said Professor Bashir, adding: "It's a long time since I have been in a room with so many people that I love dearly."
She was referring to the large number of Women's College alumni at the launch. Both Professor Bashir and Dr McCredie attended the University Women's College.
As well, several other alumni helped with the book. Over the years, Dr McCredie explained, many graduates joined her research team. Others helped with library searches, proof-reading and even fundraising. It was a remarkable example of the ties that bind in "our beloved College", as Professor Bashir said.
"This tragic condition [Thalidomide] has a personal resonance for me," Professor Bashir told the gathering. "Because one of my closest colleagues in post graduate studies in psychiatry had taken thalidomide in the critical early weeks of pregnancy to alleviate the severe symptoms of morning sickness.
"Her beautiful son was born with multiple losses including absence of his ears and the organs of hearing. She and her medical husband decided not to have other children in order to concentrate on this fine young man."
Professor Bashir continued: "During my own second pregnancy around the same time, I had kept a sample of thalidomide in my desk drawer and took it out on countless occasions only to hesitate and return it to the drawer."
It's estimated 10,000 children were born with severe malformities as a result of their mothers taking prescribed thalidomide during pregnancy.
Dr McCredie says other birth defects should be considered to be due to "neurotoxic insult" until proven otherwise.
She says there are many sensory neurotoxins in the environment, "but few as strong as thalidomide."
Pictured: Janet McCredie and Marie Bashir at the book launch
Contact: Elizabeth Heath
Phone: 02 9351 3168