Gosberton Church Hall hosts talk on The Thalidomide Catastrophe by Dr Martiin Johnson, hosted by the Rev Ian Walters
Ask any journalist who took up the profession in the 1970s as to what inspired them to do so, the name Sir Harold Evans is likely to be mentioned.
During his 14 years as editor of the Sunday Times, Sir Harold and his “Insight” team of reporters helped to uncover what has been described as “the world’s worst medical disaster”.
An audience at Gosberton Church Hall on Friday heard all about the drug thalidomide, medication prescribed to mothers as treatment for morning sickness in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The talk, My Years with the Thalidomide Trust - from Tragedy to Hope - was given by Dr Martin Johnson, ex-director of The Thalidomide Trust and a friend of the vicar of Gosberton, the Rev Ian Walters, for just over 30 years.
Mr Walters, who hosted the talk, said: “I was overwhelmed when Martin informed me that he had taken up the post as the Trust’s director.
“During his 14 years with the Trust, I heard about the various challenges Martin had found dealing with international politicians and lawyers.
“But Martin also told me about meeting children whose parents had taken this terrible substance called Thalidomide and who are now in the middle or later stages of life.
“Following Martin throughout all of this has been really inspiring and so I was thrilled that he came to Gosberton on Friday to talk to us about what he had discovered about Thalidomide.”
Since the first thalidomide-affected baby was born in Germany on Christmas Day 1956, as many as 100,000 babies were affected by the drug in total worldwide.
In the UK alone, where Thalidomide was available through the NHS from April 1958 until December 1961, about 2,000 babies were affected by the drug, with nearly 500 of them living with deformities and disabilities caused by the drug.
Dr Johnson said: “Distillers (Biochemicals), now known as Diageo, was the main distributor of Thalidomide in the UK under the brand name Distaval.
“It was advertised as being completely safe when it was released in 1958, but then evidence of Thalidomide’s effects on the eyes, ears, heart, digestive tracts, genetic brain and nervous systems of babies began to emerge.
“Thalidomide is still out there, despite the fact that there’s no proof that it does anything sufficiently beneficial.
“In my opinion, it’s a scandal that Thalidomide is still in use for any purpose whatsoever when it’s not safe to prescribe to human beings.”
The earliest sign of the scandal that Thalidomide would become arrived in 1961 when Australian doctor William McBride wrote to the leading British medical journal, The Lancet, warning that he had seen “multiple severe abnormalities” in babies delivered from women who had taken Thalidomide during pregnancy.
At the same time, Sir Harold was working as an editor in Darlington, County Durham, where he came across photographs of so-called “Thalidomide babies” who were born without arms or legs.
In 1968, Distillers reached a settlement with families who had taken legal action over the drug’s effects, seven years after Thalidomide had been withdrawn from use.
Dr Johnson, whose role with The Thalidomide Trust led to a good friendship with Sir Harold, said: “When he arrived at the Sunday Times, Sir Harold knew there was a big issue about the drug and babies affected by it.
“Together, we unearthed evidence of the shocking and appalling attitudes of both the manufacturers of Thalidomide and the British Government who was complicit in the scandal for three main reasons.
Firstly, they licensed the drug in spite of the lack of outside evidence; they gave it preferential treatment in terms of taxation that was only applicable to medicines of proven worth; they allowed Thalidomide to be prescribed and administered through the NHS when it was a brand new, unproven form of medication.”
But the biggest scandal of all is the growing evidence, outlined by Dr Johnson on Friday night, that Thalidomide was the invention of three doctors who were all charged with war crimes committed during the Nazi German era.
Dr Heinrich Muckter, Dr Otto Ambros and Professor Werner Schulemann were the “scientists” responsible for creating the drug when they worked for the Chemie Grunenthal Group.
According to Dr Johnson, Muckter was suspected of having carried out experiments on Polish prisoners, Ambros was accused of mass murder and imprisonment, while Schulemann (winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1936) had experimented on war prisoners, soldiers and hospital patients.
“The main reason why postwar Germany plumbed the depths of evil wasn’t out of anti-humanity, but for profit.
“Muckter, Ambros and Schulemann showed the DNA of the Chemie Grunenthal company which went on to produce Thalidomide and sell it worldwide.
Once Sir Harold and his Insight team published their landmark piece of investigative journalism in 1972, “Our Thalidomide children, a cause for national shame”,the drug and those behind it went down in infamy.
Dr Johnson said: “The mothers who took Thalidomide trusted their doctors, even though a lot of them were very cautious about taking medication during their pregnancies.
“This is what happens where you have an economic system without any restraints, success at any price, and I don’t think you’ll find an era in history when that hasn’t been the case.”