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Widukind Lenz

Born  1919-02-04
Died  1995

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German medical geneticist, born February 4, 1919, near Munich; died February 1995.

Biography of Widukind Lenz

Widukind D. Lenz became known for his early recognition of Thalidomide (German name: Contergan) as the cause of a world-wide epidemic of limb malformation.

From 1937 to 1943 Lenz studied medicine in Tübingen Berlin, Prague and Greifswald. From 1944 to 1948 he served as a physician in various Luftwaffe hospitals and in a prisoner of war camp in England. Thereafter he was attached to the Departments of Biochemistry in Göttingen and Medicine in Kiel. From 1952 Lenz was physician-in-chief of the Eppendorfer Kinderklinik and in 1961 he was appointed to the newly established chair of paediatrics at the University of Hamburg, entering his tenure in 1962. From 1965 Lenz has been director of the Institute of Human Genetics in Münster.

His work centres on clinical genetics, chromosomal analysis and advisory activity. He was an editor of the journal Human Genetics from 1976 to 1984. He has written a monograph on medical genetics which has been translated into English, Spanish, Japanese and Russian and a book on genetics in psychology and psychiatry. He was made doctor of honour for his teratological research on Contergan.

The thalidomide history begins in the late 1950's. In 1954, Chemie Grünenthal, a German pharmaceutical company, had developed a sedative. In October 1957, Chemie Grünenthal, a German pharmaceutical company, began marketing thalidomide as part of a new compound formulated to combat nausea, in anticipation of a predicted influenza epidemic that year. Eager to snare a large share of the sedative market, which was dominated by barbiturates, Grünenthal launched a huge advertising campaign for its new drug – Contergan. Chemie Grünenthal maintained that it was not addictive, completely safe, had absolutely no toxic side effects. The drug was also recommended for children who were "unusually uneasy".

The company's advertising efforts paid off. By 1959 an estimated 1 million consumers were using thalidomide on a daily basis in Germany, with sales reaching one ton a month. In some German states it was even sold without a prescription. It gained wider use when Distillers Ltd., began marketing the drug in Great Britain. Taking Grünenthal's assertions one step farther, the British company added labelling claiming that the drug was safe even for pregnant women.

Experiments had been made on monkeys to discover side effects, but none were found on pregnant rabbits, rats, and dogs that received the medicine for several weeks. It later proved that the animals had received the drug at the wrong time, and in such enormous doses that the animal foetuses had died. Based on these inadequate tests, German authorities approved the drug for humans. However, no real tests of the company's claims were made, as Germany had no state drug control until 1961. Later, American experiments on monkeys showed that pregnant monkeys who were given the drug between the 23rd and 31st day of pregnancy gave birth to offspring with exactly the same malformations as the affected children.

By the end of 1959, enthusiasm surrounding thalidomide began to wane. Many thalidomide-related complaints had surfaced, including polyneuritis and gastrointestinal disturbances. In the spring of 1961, William McBride, an Australian physician, attended the births of three children born with phocomelia, a rare birth defect.

After an extended weekend of looking over patients' medical records, Dr. McBride came to the conclusion that thalidomide was the only associated common cause in all of these births. McBride called Distillers Ltd. and related his concerns. In Germany, Contergan was suspected as a cause of malformations as early as in 1958, but it was not until 1961 that Widukind Lenz was able to establish the use of thalidomide by pregnant women as the cause. On November 13, 1961, Widukind Lenz demanded that Contergan be withdrawn from the market. This was done by Grünenthal and Distillers Ltd. within the end of that year.

The United States never experienced a catastrophe similar to that seen in Europe. This was to a large degree due to the famous paediatric cardiologist Helen Brooke Taussig (1898-1986). One of her students drew her attention to the congenital malformations occurring in Germany and England, and Taussig campaigned successfully against the introduction of thalidomide into the U.S.A.

The first Contergan process opened in Hamburg on January 23, 1963. Contergan was the first post war pharma scandal. 2600 children and 300 adults who had been damaged, and Chemie Grünenthal, the producer, in 1967 settled out of court, the company paying 110 million German Marks to a foundation.

Widukind Lenz' father was the professor of racial hygiene, Fritz Lenz (1887-), who with Erwin Baur (1875-) and Eugen Fischer (1874-) was co-author of a once well known textbook on human heredity, Grundriss der menschlichen Erblichkeitslehre und Rassenhygiene [Outline of Human Genetics and Racial Hygiene] (1921). Fritz Lenz expressed his concern for the Germans "without space . . . the at least 20 million capable persons," for whom he wished to find room within Germany's borders. Fritz Lenz recommended that more space could be found by reducing the population through the "sterilization of all the unfit and inferior." Lenz believed about 30 percent of the population to be bearers of unsound hereditary traits who should have no right to reproduce.

The History of Thalidomide
The beginning of a lecture given at the 1992 UNITH Congress by Dr. Widukind Lenz:

More than thirty years ago, i.e. in November 1961, I have become involved in the history of thalidomide, and up to the present day I have never lost contact with the problem. It is quite impossible to relate in one lecture (to present) the whole complicated story of the initial synthesis of the drug in 1954, of its marketing in 1957, its spread to many countries in Europe, Asia, Australia, America and Africa, and of the following epidemic of malformations of the limbs and of the ears, often accompanied by malformations of the internal organs. So I decided to restrict my account on the most essential aspects and to tell you more about my personal experience than about the extensive literature on the subject.
Though the first child afflicted by thalidomide damage to the ears was born on December 25, 1956, it took about four and a half years before an Australian gynaecologist, Dr. McBride of Sydney, suspected that thalidomide was the cause of limb and bowel malformations in three children he had seen at Crown Street Women's Hospital. There are only conflicting reports unsubstantiated by documents on the reaction of his colleagues and the Australian representatives of Distillers Company, producers of the British product Distaval between June and December 16, 1961, when a short letter of McBride was published in the Lancet. Distillers Company in Liverpool had received the news from Australia on November 21, 1961, almost exactly at the same time as similar news from Germany.
I had suspected thalidomide to be the cause of an outbreak of limb and ear malformation in Western Germany for the first time on November 11, 1961, and by November 16, I felt sufficiently certain from continuing investigations to warn Chemie Gruenenthal by a phone call. It took ten more days of intensive discussions with representatives of the producer firm, of health authorities, and of experts before the drug was withdrawn, largely due to reports in the press. Dispute on the question, whether thalidomide did or did not cause malformations was going on for months, though independent confirmation of Dr. McBride's and my observations rapidly accumulated. Chemie Gruenenthal continued to deny the teratogenic effects of thalidomide for years, but there was a growing suspicion that this was not due to honest ignorance but to the purpose of weakening the accusations against the firm.
In some countries, e.g. Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Italy and Japan, thalidomide continued to be sold for several months (after withdrawal of the drug from West German and British markets). From an increasing number of well documented cases in which the mother had definitely taken thalidomide in early pregnancy it has become possible to delineate the spectrum of malformations attributable to the drug.


  • W. Lenz
    Medical genetics. Translated by Elisabeth F. Lanzl.
    University of Chicago Press. 1963.
  • W. G. McBride:
    Thalidomide and congenital abnormalities. The Lancet, 1961, 2: 1358.
  • W. von Lenz, K. Knapp:
    Die thalidomid-embryopathie.
    Deutsche medizinische Wochenschrift, Stuttgart, 1962, 87(24): 1232-1242.
  • H. Taussig:
    A study of the German outbreak of phocomelia.
    Journal of the American Medical Association, Chicago, 1962, 180: 1106-1114.
  • W. Lenz:
    Chemicals and malformations in man.
    In: Second International Conference on Congenital Malformations. (Ed: M. Fishbein) International Medical Congress, New York, 1964, 263-276.
  • C. S. Delahunt, L. J. Lassen:
    Thalidomide syndrome in monkeys.
    Science, 1964, 146: 1300-1301.
  • W. Lenz:
    Malformations caused by drugs in pregnancy.
    American Journal of Diseases of Children, Chicago, 1966, 112: 99-106.
  • W. J. Curran:
    The thalidomide tragedy in Germany: The end of a historic medicolegal trial.
    New England Journal of Medicine, 1971, 284: 481-482.
  • Benno Müller-Hill (1933-):
    Murderous science : elimination by scientific selection of Jews, Gypsies, and others in Germany, 1933-1945. Afterword by James D. Watson ; translated by George R. Fraser.
    Plainview, N.Y. : Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 1998.
    German title: Tödliche Wissenschaft.

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