At 5.39am on Thursday morning Guy Tweedy, a thalidomide survivor, campaigner and friend of Harold Evans, received an email from Tina Brown and Georgie and Izzy, the couple’s two children.
“It is with a breaking heart that I write to tell you we’ve lost our darling Harry at 10:52pm,” Brown wrote. Asking for donations to charity instead of flowers, she added a stanza from Shakespeare’s Henry V, Act IV:
A largess universal, like the sun,
His liberal eye doth give to everyone,
Thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all
Behold, as may unworthiness define,
A little touch of Harry in the night.
It was, said Tweedy, a perfect remembrance of his friend: “It’s absolutely right to say that Harry’s generous eye noticed everyone.
“There are thousands of families better off today because they were lucky enough to benefit from ‘a little touch’ of Harry’s journalistic genius, social empathy and determination to see justice done.”
It is 47 years since, as editor of the Sunday Times of London in the early 70s, Evans took on the fight on behalf of families of some 90,000 babies who died in spontaneous abortions and at least 10,000 who were born malformed because of the drug thalidomide.
Thalidomide was promoted across 52 countries by the German company Chemie Grünenthal in the late 50s and early 60s. Despite having done no animal test for effects on reproduction, the company targeted the drug at expectant mothers, saying it was a “completely safe” and “completely atoxic” treatment for morning sickness.
But the impact of the drug was horrific. In Evans’s own words: “The most damaged [children] survive today as limbless trunks, others whose legs and arms were reduced to digital ‘flipper’ extrusions from the shoulder, and thousands have severe internal injuries as well.”
When UK families tried to get help, they found themselves locked in a long legal battle against Distillers Biochemicals (now part of Diageo), which distributed the drug in Britain.
At the behest of the government, the high court banned any reporting on the case. Evans, however, decided to break the law. He launched an investigation and campaign for compensation that led to Distillers paying about £28m to British victims in the 1970s.
Mikey Argy, a thalidomide survivor who knew Evans well, said: “He thought of us as his children and we thought of him as our hero.
“He was willing to break the law for us… He had total respect for us and we had total awe for him. How is the world going to cope without a man like Harold Evans in it?”
Geoff Adams-Spink, a thalidomide survivor and BBC journalist, was another friend. He remembers meeting Evans at the RAC club in 2012. “The maitre d’ refused to let me in without a tie and Harry was so affronted that the club would ask a man without arms to put a tie on that he insisted on tying it for me himself.”
“He was a man with such humility even though he had nothing left to prove.”