Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Investigative Journalism

Attacking the devil: the thalidomide story

BMJ 2016; 352 doi: (Published 21 January 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;352:i353
  1. Rebecca Coombes, head of features and investigations
  1. 1The BMJ
  1. rcoombes{at}

A new film chronicles former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans’s campaign for the rights of the children affected by the drug. Rebecca Coombes recounts the scandal

Kevin Donnelly, a social worker who was disabled by thalidomide, and whose family received fair compensation after the successful Sunday Times campaign led by Harold Evans, features in the film Attacking the Devil

The thalidomide scandal stands as one of the worst ever medical disasters. The sedative, created in Germany in 1953 and marketed as a powerful antiemetic to pregnant women, led to 2000 deaths and to 10 000 children with birth defects, principally in Europe, Australasia, and Canada. In the United Kingdom alone 2000 “thalidomide babies” were born limbless, and many had other effects such as deafness and blindness, in the three years after the drugs was licensed for use in 1958. There were no cases in the United States because of stricter drug safety laws.

In 1961 the Australian doctor William McBride wrote to the Lancet after noticing an increase in the number of babies with birth …

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