Thalidomide: The Ninety-Eight We Forgot

“The thalidomide affair is not over. Last year, after 11 years of struggle, the children won their compensation. But there are still 98 children whose mothers believe they took thalidomide who’ve got nothing.”

Allied to a four-year Daily Mirror campaign by John Pilger that helped achieve compensation for many of the forgotten and mostly working class victims of the notorious drug prescribed to women during pregnancy. Broadcast in 1974, the theme of Thalidomide: The Ninety-eight We Forgot was to become a Pilger hallmark: injustice.

Almost 100 children had not been included in the previous year’s settlement under which the Distillers Company set up a £20 million trust fund for the 342 “lucky” ones on the X-list of children who had suffered deformities as a result of their mothers taking the drug thalidomide. The 98 on the Y-list did not receive any compensation because their mothers lacked written proof that they had taken thalidomide or their deformities were not typical of those caused by the ‘wonder drug’ introduced in 1958 as a sedative during pregnancy. The different between the lucky and unlucky lists was class.

One mother recalls a doctor giving her, without prescription, Distaval, one of the brands under which thalidomide was marketed. “There seems to be very little difference between the evidence which got some children on to the X-list and some children on to the Y-list,” a solicitor acting for a Y-list family tells Pilger.

This film and Pilger’s Daily Mirror campaign led to a promise by the thalidomide assessment panel to reassess the children, but only 13 children had been transferred to the X-list by December 1977. The following year, Pilger persuaded American consumer champion Ralph Nader to arrange a boycott of Distillers’ products in the United States and wrote an open letter in the Mirror to the Distillers chairman, headlined “Dear Sir, in the name of humanity”. As a result, Distillers agreed to abide by an inquiry that was to recommend that, of the 74 youngsters still on the Y-list, 20 should be included in the 1973 settlement and another 49 receive £10,000 compensation.

Thalidomide: The Ninety-eight We Forgot (Pilger, ATV), ITV, 2 June 1974

Director: Christine Fox; series producer: Charles Denton (26 mins)

With thanks to Anthony Hayward, whose biography of John Pilger is available to buy here.

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The John Pilger archive is held at the British Library