In the decades after the war, chemical and drug companies produced an explosion of novel synthetic pharmaceutical products, and the medical profession, intoxicated by the same boundless faith in the progress of science that gripped the rest of the country, was eager to administer the new concoctions to its patients, including pregnant women. An excerpt from the book, Origins, by Annie Murphy Paul (2010) summarizes the history, beginning with the medical profession's early views regarding the risks of alcohol:
Doctors' confidence in the harmlessness of alcohol was based on their beliefs about the placenta. This organ, which implants itself in the uterus soon after conception to form a way station between woman and fetus, was thought to provide seamless protection from harmful substances. Medical historian Ann Dally traces this sanguine notion back to the attitudes of the late nineteenth century. "The Victorian tendency to put woman on a pedestal led to the idealization of the woman as well as of the woman," she writes, and to 'a belief in the placenta as a perfect barrier against damaging influences." This conviction was still current in the 1950s, when Dally attended medical school; there she was taught that a toxin would affect the fetus only if it actually killed the mother. Pregnant women were not counseled about the dangers of medications or alcohol, Dally notes, and new drugs were not thoroughly tested for their safety during pregnancy.
And new drugs there were in abundance. The middle of the twentieth century was a golden age of pharmaceutical innovation, a time when serene sleep and steady nerves and a slim figure could be found inside the medicine cabinet. Pregnant women, too, were promised relief from all the complaints, small and large, of their condition: sleeplessness, morning sickness, miscarriage. The remedies were touted by advertisers in women's magazines, and by the publications' writers and editors themselves; an article about miscarriage in the November 1950 issue of Women's Home Companion celebrated "the miracle drugs that have tumbled from the laboratories in such heartening profusion recently." The sales job worked: those who gave birth in the postwar years, writes one chronicler of the period, "were among the most medicated women in history." Between 1958 and 1965, according to one study, half of all new mothers took two to four pharmaceutical products while pregnant.
|She may be poisoning herself, her child, and her future grandchildren, but at least she can make her husband his breakfast! A 1950s ad for the morning sickness drug Mornidine, which was later pulled from the market due to toxic impacts.|
|The synthetic estrogen DES caused multifaceted devastation, including infertility, urogenital abnormality and cancer, in a large portion of those exposed. For more information on DES, including third-generation effects, see DES Info and DES Action.|
|Pregnant women were prescribed dozens of mood-altering and sedating drugs. Thalidomide (Distaval) caused horrific birth defects.|