William McBride, doctor who warned of birth defects caused by thalidomide, dies aged 91

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Dr William McBride, who was among the first doctors to sound an alarm about thalidomide, the sedative found to cause birth defects, but whose later career was marred by accusations of falsified research results and other misconduct, died on June 27 in Australia. He was 91.

His son David announced the death on Facebook. The location and cause were not given.

In the spring of 1961, Dr McBride, an obstetrician, delivered a baby at Crown Street Women's Hospital in Sydney, Australia, who had malformed arms and other problems. Within a few weeks he had delivered two more.

In a letter published in the medical journal The Lancet that December, he noted that what seemed to connect the patients was a drug he had prescribed for morning sickness, thalidomide (known in Australia as Distaval).

At about the same time, a German doctor, Dr Widukind Lenz, had made the same connection and documented cases all over Germany. The drug was quickly banned or pulled from the market in one country after another.

Dr McBride was hailed as a hero. But after he set up a research organisation, Foundation 41, with prize money he had received from a French institute for his role in the thalidomide matter, he was bedevilled by controversy.

In the 1980s, his research into possible harmful effects of another drug, Bendectin, was called into question, and he became embroiled in a lengthy battle to defend his reputation. He and his supporters believed drug companies were trying to silence him; at one point, he thought they might be monitoring his phone calls.

In 1993, a tribunal ordered him "struck off" the medical register of New South Wales, barring him from practising medicine.

Dr William Griffith McBride was born on May 25, 1927, in Sydney to Mr John and Mrs Myrine Griffith McBride. He grew up near Dungog, north of Newcastle, in eastern Australia.

After receiving medical degrees at the University of Sydney, he served as resident medical officer at several hospitals in the early 1950s. He pursued additional medical studies in London before coming to the Crown Street hospital in 1955. A 1988 article in The Sydney Morning Herald said he had delivered 1,500 babies there before the hospital closed in 1983.

In 1960, a representative of Distillers, which marketed thalidomide in Britain, came calling, and Dr McBride agreed to try the drug on some patients. He was the only doctor using it at the hospital when the problems arose, which enabled the quick identification of its link to the birth defects.

Among the many controversies surrounding Dr McBride was whether he was actually the first to make the connection regarding his patients. In 1987, after the Australian Broadcasting Corporation medical journalist Norman Swan, himself a doctor, broadcast a segment questioning Dr McBride's Bendectin research, news reports on the resulting uproar said that it was actually a nurse, Ms Pat Sparrow, who originally noted the thalidomide link. Dr McBride was said to have initially resisted her suggestion that the drug was at fault but soon adopted that view.

His efforts won him accolades of all sorts. They also brought him a thriving practice and a cash award from L'Institut de la Vie in France. In 1971, he used that money to set up Foundation 41 - named for the 41 weeks between conception and birth - to study the causes of mental and physical problems in newborns.

In 1998, Dr McBride won the right to practise medicine again, though with several conditions, including that he not conduct research.

In addition to his son David and daughter Catherine, he is survived by his wife Patricia Glover, also a doctor; another daughter, Louise; another son, John; and seven grandchildren.

One reason that Dr McBride sought reinstatement, when he was in his 70s, was that he wanted to work in American Samoa, where, he said, his expertise in obstetrics and gynaecology were in demand and he had already done work on a provisional basis.

"I was delighted to see how well I could operate," he said. "I did a cesarean in 20 minutes."