Mystery of poisoned babies at German hospital deepens after probe blunder

Fresh questions emerged Tuesday in the mysterious case of five newborn babies who were drugged with morphine at a German hospital, after police said they made "a mistake" when they arrested a nurse on suspicion of attempted manslaughter.

Mystery of poisoned babies at German hospital deepens after probe blunder
Ulm's University Hospital. Photo: DPA

The five babies, aged between one day and five weeks at the time, all survived the attempted poisoning on December 20th and are not expected to suffer lasting harm.

The nurse was detained on Wednesday after investigators searching her locker at Ulm University Hospital discovered a feeding syringe containing breast milk and traces of what initial testing determined was morphine.

READ ALSO: German nurse 'poisoned babies with morphine'

But Ulm prosecutor Christof Lehr told reporters that the first test was now known to be wrong, after further analysis showed the syringe did not contain morphine after all.

The woman was released from custody on Sunday, with an apology from the prosecutor.

The decision to act based on the preliminary test result, which had not been checked against a control sample, “was in hindsight a mistake”, said Ralf Michelfelder, head of the state police of Baden-Württemberg, at a press conference.

The error became clear after the mother whose breast milk was in the syringe volunteered to give a control sample, which also inexplicably tested positive for the heavy painkiller.

The lab in Baden-Württemberg carrying out the analysis then discovered it was their own solvent used in the tests that had been contaminated with a tiny amount of morphine.

Follow-up tests by a lab in the neighbouring state of Bavaria confirmed that neither the syringe nor the control sample contained any morphine.

“I'm very sorry for the woman in question,” Lehr said. But given the urgent need to keep infants at the hospital safe, he said he had had to make a quick decision.

Night shift staff

The nurse remains a suspect in the case, however, along with two doctors and three other nurses who were on duty that night.

“There remains an initial suspicion against these six people because of their close proximity to the infants at the time of the act,” Michael Bischofberger, a spokesman for the Ulm prosecutor's office, told AFP.

The investigation is continuing “in all directions”, he said.

The December 20th incident saw all five babies, some of them born prematurely, develop breathing problems at roughly the same time.

It was only thanks to “the immediate action taken by the staff” that the babies' lives were saved, Lehr said.

Ulm University Hospital initially suspected the infants had caught an infection.

READ ALSO: German nurse under investigation for murdering patients

But this was ruled out by urine tests whose results came back on January 16th.

The tests did however show traces of morphine — although none of the infants had been due to receive the drug at that particular time.

The hospital notified the police the following day.

Often administered to treat severe pain, morphine is also used to treat withdrawal symptoms in babies born to drug-addicted mothers.

A morphine overdose can lead to life-threatening respiratory failure.

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Travel in Germany: Discover centuries of riches in unmissable Ulm

It used to be said that ‘coins from Ulm rule the whole world’. If you don’t believe that, just take a look at the Ulmer Münster, whose spire completely dominates the city.

Travel in Germany: Discover centuries of riches in unmissable Ulm
The sun sets at the cathedral in Ulm. Photo: DPA

Rather than being funded by the church, or a particular noble, this tallest church in the world was funded by the merchants and traders of the city, as a demonstration of their wealth and power. 

Visible from all over the city, it would be remiss of us not to first mention the towering Gothic masterpiece that is the Ulmer Münster.

Begun in the late middle ages, it wasn’t actually completed until the 19th century. Despite the delay, the spire has remained the tallest in the world for centuries, and is still a major drawcard for those with no fear of heights.

The city of Ulm and the Münster by night. Photo: DPA

For those of us who feel more secure at ground level, the church interior is crammed with statues, wall paintings and other glorious works stretching from the 15th to 20th centuries. Don’t miss the stunning painting over the altar and chancel, showing the Day of Judgement in all its dramatic glory.

While you’re in the church precinct, also make sure to check out the Valentinskapelle, built by the wealthy Rembold family as a funerary chapel.

Over the years it has served as a wine cellar, food store and air raid shelter, yet it still retains some wonderful medieval artworks, and is currently used by the Russian Orthodox community. 

Established near the confluence of the Blau, Iller and Danube rivers, in what is today the state of Baden-Württemberg, Ulm was always going to be an important centre of trade – rivers being the highways of the medieval world. It was granted status as a ‘Free Imperial City’ in the 12th century, by Frederick Barbarossa. Proximity to mining regions also made it a natural site for the minting of coins, and this is where the wealth of the city would truly be established. 

Other than the Münster, other traces of the city’s wealth are clearly visible throughout the city. In fact, the city’s delineation into distinct quarters make for fascinating historical exploration. 

Mostly highly recommended is the Fischerviertel. While it is named for the fishermen who plied their trade along the rivers, this was also the city’s manufacturing hub. Many fachwerk, or half-timbered houses still exist, including the Schiefes Haus, or ‘Crooked House’.

As the name suggests, the building has warped over the years, possibly due to its proximity to the River Blau, and makes for some great photography.  If you’re not fussy about your right angles, you can also stay there! Close by is the Ulmer Münz, the city’s former mint during the 17th century. Today it’s a cafe serving local specialities. 

Ulm is an intensely historic city, and this is perhaps best explored, once you’ve done the Munster and the Fischerviertel, by visiting the Ulm Museum, that contains not only exhibitions about the development of the city, but also artwork, and archaeological finds from the area.

A view of Ulm and its new Berblinger Tower. Photo: DPA

The prize possession of the museum is the ‘Löwenmensch’, the oldest anthropomorphic representation in existence, depicting a lion with the body of a man. It’s estimated to be 40,000 years old and is carved from mammoth tusk.

To this day, conservation efforts are still adding small pieces to the statuette, to show what it looked like when first carved.

Ulm is well worth a day or two of your time, with plenty to offer those who seek a glance of Germany’s historical riches. From a minster, to a mint, to men carved from mammoth tusks, visitors won’t go away unsatisfied. 


Münsterplatz 21, 89073 Ulm

Münsterplatz, 89073 Ulm

Schwörhausgasse 6, 89073 Ulm

Schwörhausgasse 4/1, 89073 Ulm

Marktpl. 9, 89073 Ulm