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Jacob Sheskin (1914-1999)

Jacob Sheskin was the doctor who discovered the banned drug thalidomide could help leprosy patients.

Sheskin was born in Poland in 1914. He studied medicine, and after the Second World War specialised in dermatology and venereology. After living in Venezuela and Spain, he emigrated to Israel in 1956. In Jerusalem he worked for the dermatology department of the Hadassah University Hospital under its director Felix Sagher.

In 1964, after other drugs failed, Sheskin gave thalidomide to a leprosy patient to act as a sedative and relieve pain. Amazingly, he discovered other symptoms of the disease disappeared within days of giving the drug. His accidental discovery means leprosy sufferers worldwide are treated effectively with thalidomide. Research into other uses for the drug is ongoing.

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Bibliography

T Stephens and R Brynner, Dark Remedy: The Impact of Thalidomide and its Revival as a Vital Medicine (Cambridge, Mass: Perseus Publishing, 2001)

J Sheskin, ‘Thalidomide in lepra reaction’, International Journal of Dermatology, 14/8 (1975), pp 575-576

Glossary:

Leprosy

A chronic disease that affects the skin, mucous membrane and nerves. It is now confined mainly to the tropics and is transmitted by direct contact. Previously a widely feared disease, leprosy is not highly infectious.

Sedative

Drugs used for their calming effect, to reduce anxiety and tension. At high doses they cause sleep.