This year for Ada Lovelace day, I wrote a new Wikipedia page about Dr Isabel Gal, a Hungarian paediatrician and Holocaust Survivor who, in 1967, was responsible for establishing a link between use of the hormonal pregnancy test Primodos and severe congenital birth defects. I came across Gal quite by chance via the @OnThisDayShe twitter account, which aims to “Put women back into history, one day at a time.”
On this day in 1967, Dr Isabel Gal published findings that a drug called Primodos caused serious birth defects. Gal, an Auschwitz survivor, was not taken seriously: this summer, the Cumberlege review vindicated her. Compensation cases are ongoing. https://t.co/hPVa9ysEiD pic.twitter.com/BavOzp5i8g
— On This Day She (@OnThisDayShe) October 7, 2020
A quick google showed that while there were Wikipedia entries for Primodos and for Baroness Cumberlege who led a review into the drug, there was no entry for Gal herself. Which is all the more astonishing given the extraordinary and tenacious life she led. Gal, a Hungarian Jew, survived the Holocaust after being interred in Auschwitz along with her mother and two sisters, all of whom survived. Her father however died in Mauthausen concentration camp. After the war, Gal studied to become a paediatrician at the University of Budapest and married mathematician Endre Gal. During the Hungarian revolution of 1956, Gal and her family fled to the UK, after being smuggled out of Hungary into Austria. What I didn’t know when I started writing the article was that Gal re-qualified as a doctor at the University of Edinburgh. According to her daughter-in-law, who wrote her obituary for the Guardian, she found Scottish accents easier to understand than London ones. I haven’t been able to find any information online about Gal’s time in Edinburgh, but I’ll be contacting the University’s Centre for Research Collections as soon as I get back from leave, to see what they can dig up.
In 1967, while working at St Mary’s Children’s Hospital in Surrey, Gal published a short article in Nature magazine highlighting a link between Primodos, a hormonal pregnancy test marketed by the German drug company Shering AG, and serious congenital birth defects. She also pointed out that the test used the same components as oral contraceptive pills. Despite taking her findings to the Department of Health, the Committee on Safety of Medicines, and the government’s Senior Medical Officer, Bill Inman, her warnings were ignored, partially as a result of concerns that they would discourage women from taking oral contraception. Primodos was banned in several European countries in the early 1970s, but it wasn’t until 1975 that a warning was added to Primodos in UK, and it was only withdrawn from the market in 1978, for commercial reasons. A long running campaign by the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests, and the discovery of documents revealing that Shering had concealed information relating to the dangers of the drug, eventually resulted in a government review that found that there was no causal association between Primodos and birth defects. However Theresa May, who was then prime minister, ordered a second review led by Baroness Cumberlege, which published its findings earlier this year and concluded that there was indeed a link and that the drug should have been withdrawn from use in 1967.
Gal believed she was blacklisted as a result of her campaign and after being repeatedly turned down for senior positions, she eventually left the medical profession. She died in London in 2017 at the age of 92, two years before the Cumberlege review vindicated her findings.
Interviewed about the review’s findings, Theresa May said she believed that sexism had been partially responsible for the authorities failure to act.
“I almost felt it was sort of women being patted on the head and being told ‘there there dear’, don’t worry. You’re imagining it. You don’t know. We know better than you do….I think this is a very sad example of a situation where people were badly affected, not just by the physical and mental aspect of what Primodos actually did, but by the fact that nobody then listened to them…”
A Skye News investigation in 2017 revealed that Inman, who had originally stonewalled Gal’s efforts to have the drug withdrawn, and whose own research showed an increased risk of birth defects among women who had used hormone pregnancy tests, had destroyed his research data, “to prevent individual claims being based on his material”.
Dr Gal’s story, and her omission from Wikipedia, are sadly typical of many women scientists whose contributions have been stifled, stonewalled, ignored, elided and written out of history. It’s very telling that while Gal didn’t even have a red link, Inman has an extensive and glowing Wikipedia entry, which makes no mention of his role in the Primodos scandal or the fact that he destroyed evidence relating to the case. However with the publication of the Cumberlege Review and a new Sky documentary, Bitter Pill: Primodos, there has been increased interest in Gal’s role in highlighting the dangers of hormonal pregnancy tests. I hope her new Wikipedia entry will help others to discover Dr Isabel Gal’s amazing story, and bring her the recognition she deserves.