Thalidomide: The battle for justice

thalidomide victim
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Back in the late 1950’s medical science incorrectly presumed women experienced morning sickness as a result of being over-excited about pregnancy.

The solution to this dilemma came in the form of a drug manufactured by a drinks company. Originally known as Contergan when it was launched in West Germany in 1957 to support those coping with insomnia, tension and anxiety the sedative later became widely available for pregnant woman trying to overcome their morning sickness.

It wasn’t long until the real dangers of the drug, now known as Thalidomide, surfaced. In a short space of time 7,000 German children were born without limbs, 60% died in infantry. The epidemic spread on a global scale, a further 10,000 similar cases were recorded and only half of these disabled children won the battle with this deadly disease.

Thalidomide attacks the limbs in unborn children, hands, arms, legs and feet are replaced by stumps. Digestive systems, sight, hearts, hearing can all be attacked leading to babies being born with severe disabilities.

When the drug was released the stigma of disability was ripe. Having a disabled child was seen as disgrace, something to hide, be ashamed of resulting in a number of malformed babies being left to die alone.

There was little support from the government, no legal system to support devastated parents. Nobody wanted to know except for a small minority, which included art dealer David Mason.

Mason decided to go public, campaigning for compensation against the drug which had attacked his new born daughter, Louise.

On July 30 1973 Mason won a court battle which saw Distillers (the company who manufactured the drug in Britain) pay out £20m to families who have seen their lives ruined by their mistake. The firm was forced to pay £6m compensation directly to 400 parents across the UK and invest a further £14m in a trust which would support children living with thalidomide.

Forty-One years later Distillers, now part of Diageo settled a further agreement which saw the firm financing a one-off payment worth 70% of the annual payments made to children from the trust fund.


Tonight a BBC2 documentary follows the fifty year battle for justice and interviews those who have been affected with the illness.

Thalidomide – The Fifty Year Fight is on BBC2, Thursday 15 May at 9pm