The campaign to win better compensation for children affected by the “morning sickness” drug thalidomide is cited as one of the great achievements of Sir Harold Evans, the British-born journalist and editor who died last week in New York at the age of 92.
But the true impact of Evans’s efforts in the 1970s, both on damaged families and on future journalistic crusades, will outlast the man, according to Marjorie Wallace, who helped him call the distributor of the dangerous pills to account, and to Geoff Adams-Spink, a survivor of the drug.
“As a young child I was aware of the word thalidomide, although my parents had not told me I was involved,” remembered Adams-Spink, now a journalist and chairman of the trustees of the Thalidomide Society.
“My mum had a terrible feeling of guilt. A lot of the mothers felt that way, although they were the least guilty of anyone. Then, one day, someone at school said they thought I must be one of those ‘thalidomide people’. I replied I couldn’t be because my parents would have told me.”
Descriptions of the drug’s effects on an unborn child included shortened limbs and damaged eyes. “I did think that sounded like me. I was aware families were looking for proper compensation and even as an ‘outsider’, or so I thought, it was frightening to think that someone trusted, someone in a white coat, could unleash something so terrible.”
The truth was revealed to the 11-year-old Geoff as a result of the coverage by the Insight investigative team at Evans’s Sunday Times. “She did talk to me about it after seeing those stories. She begged me for my forgiveness. That was a difficult thing for a boy to hear, but she felt she done something awful to me.”
The revelation left Adams-Spink, now 58, with a sceptical attitude to authority. “It was a loss of innocence, really. I am definitely not anti-vaccines, but whenever doctors want to give me something and tell me it will do me good, I sometimes want to say, ‘look at me!’ After all, that is exactly what my mother was told back then.”
Wallace, 77, was the single mother of a four-month-old baby when she took up the journalistic challenge Evans offered her. He had approached her in 1973 at a north London tennis court to ask her to work on his new campaign. “Suddenly, this figure rushed towards me, his eyes sparkling, saying, ‘we need you now!’, the journalist and founder of the mental health charity Sane recalled. “I had not met him before and had just stopped working for the BBC. I just pointed to the baby in the carrycot.”
Evans picked up the cot and set about looking for a childminder. “What editor today would do anything as hands-on as that?,” wonders Wallace. “I then had to start tracking down 140 families.”
The newspaper already had evidence of how the drug had been marketed without adequate testing and its links to disabilities ignored. But a legal challenge from Distillers, the British producer and distributor, had prevented them from printing it. “Harry’s answer was to run a ‘moral campaign’ by running heartbreaking stories until Distillers had improved the measly amount it had offered the families,” said Wallace. “The general public had not seen photos of these children without arms and legs. Tracking the families down was very difficult. A lot of doors were shut in my face because the parents had been told not to speak.”
The newspaper sent Wallace across the country: “It was a huge investment of time and energy. Harry was interested in each story of injustice and would meet some of the children.”
Wallace said many children had been shunned by doctors wary of being sued. She also remembers entering a crowded cafe with one young child who had been severely affected, alongside his adoptive parents, and watching as the queue of people ahead of her quickly disappeared.
She added:“Quite often the mothers were blamed, even though the pills were for sickness. They were thought of as neurotic. So if I ever told Harry that a family might be hurt if we ran a particular story, he agreed we would not do it.”
Wallace views the campaign as a great public crusade and sees Evans as her journalistic mentor. “He taught me how to campaign. He said, ‘You don’t just write it once. You don’t just write it twice. You go on writing until people are almost bored.’ And eventually we got £28m compensation for them, along with some government money.”
As a teenager, Adams-Spink was aware a team of journalists were on the case, but didn’t know their individual names. “They were all heroes riding to our defence. Reading their articles I also felt real anger for what had happened. Society had conspired to contain this information.”
Within the next few years he had been accepted for fast-track entry into the diplomatic service and had also considered a career as a barrister. Journalism, though, became the only option: “It held a magnetic pull for me which was amplified when I met Harry Evans.”
Whenever Wallace met Evans later, she said, he always remembered all the names of the children in the campaign and wanted to know what had happened to them.