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The Downfall of A.h. Robins

A. H. Robins pharmaceutical company produced the Dalkon Shield, an intrauterine device (IUD) blamed for causing injury to thousands of women, including death, infection, infertility, miscarriages, and birth defects, which eventually led to the bankruptcy of the company.

Controversy surrounded both the Shield and Robins, and allegations that Robins ignored and covered up signs of faulty research and design have been numerous. The company was named after Albert Hartley Robins, a pharmacist who owned an apothecary shop in nineteenth-century Richmond, Virginia. His son, Clairborne Robins, came to work with his father in 1896 and later created the A.H. Robins Company, selling drugs only to physicians. His son, E. Clairborne Robins, entered the business in 1933 and, over the following decade turned the failing company around. By the early 1950s, A. H. Robins had added the cough medication Robitussin to its product line, and sales were taking off. In 1963, sales topped $50 million, Robins acquired the makers of Chap-Stick, and its stock became publicly traded. By 1978, E. Clairborne Robins, Jr., had taken over as CEO and remained at that post until the late 1980s, when the company was bought by American Home Products.

The Dalkon Shield was the first venture into contraceptives for A. H. Robins. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, much controversy surrounded the use of the birth control pill, so there was a large market for a safe and effective method of contraception. A. H. Robins responded to this demand by purchasing the rights to the Shield on June 12, 1970, from the Dalkon Corporation, a small company that had shared ownership between the two creators of the Dalkon Shield, Hugh Davis and Irwin Lerner, and a Connecticut attorney, Robert Cohn. Issues with the research conducted on the Shield by its creators surfaced quickly. Features of the device’s design, including pronged edges and a multifilament string that was thought to “wick” bacteria into the uterus, were claimed to be the cause of thousands of injuries and illnesses.

Despite these early issues, the Shield was aggressively marketed to physicians and women in the United States and worldwide. From the time the device hit the market in 1971 and was pulled in 1974, an estimated 4.5 to 5 million Shields were distributed around the world. Despite the Shield’s success in its first few years on the market, reports of injuries in Shield users were quick to surface, and the first lawsuit against Robins was filed in 1972. The first Dalkon Shield verdict was reached in the case of a Kansas woman, Connie Deemer, who became pregnant, suffered a perforated uterus, and was subjected to emergency surgery to remove the Shield, which had lodged itself in her abdominal cavity. She was awarded $10,000 in actual (compensatory) damages and $75,000 in punitive damages in what was to be the first of many lawsuits to yield awards to Shield users.

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