FOUR FINGERS AND THIRTEEN TOES – Call the Midwife – Thalidomide, a serious subject in a “Poplar” drama
At long last ‘Call The Midwife’ one of Britain’s most popular drama series since it launched in 2012, will be covering Thalidomide. The fifth series in this ever popular drama will air on Sunday 17th January at 8pm, and true to its previous themes, has not been afraid to tackle contentious subjects which arose during the years that have been covered so far.
After the end of the first series, I recall writing to the BBC saying that if the drama was to continue into the 1960s, they would have to include Thalidomide in the storyline. It would simply not be possible to airbrush Thalidomide from history and would misrepresent life in the 1960’s, which for over 400 families was as harsh as it is portrayed in the television programme.
Thankfully, Heidi Thomas, the series writer and producer, inspired by my story and a number of others, has been researching and writing the series for two years and has done so with great respect and accuracy to historical facts.
In the final episode of Series 4 which was aired on the 8th of March 2015, a patient caused great concern when a case of morning sickness proved to be more serious than initially suspected. She had hyperemesis gravidarum, an extreme form of morning sickness that recently affected the Duchess of Cambridge during her pregnancies.
It is quite ironic that long before Prince William married the Duchess (and her suffering with hyperemesis gravidarum) I touched upon this very issue in my book Four Fingers and Thirteen Toes. In the book, I pondered how different things might have been if any member of the Royal Family had been affected by Thalidomide – as was quite possible … Prince Andrew and Viscount Lindley were both of an age where they might have been affected.
However, in that episode, Doctor Turner (Actor Stephen McGann and husband to Heidi Thomas) prescribed a “new sleeping pill”, for the pregnant woman which he felt would help her relax. It was early 1960 and this is our first indication that Thalidomide would be touched upon in the series. True to history, the ‘new sleeping pill’ was not mentioned by name, as of course, no-one had any idea of the notoriety of the name Thalidomide over 50 years ago.
Its next appearance was in the Christmas Special on 25th December 2015. Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt) was left in charge of steaming the Christmas pudding, but the exercise went awry when she collapsed on the stairs with a fever, leaving the pudding basin to explode and fling soaked fruit all over the ceiling.
Doctor Turner was called to Nonnatus House and prescribed medication for Sister Monica Joan. the Doctor says (and I quote) “I have prescribed Distaval as a sedative. It will calm her down and perhaps make her behaviour less erratic.”
Distaval is just one of the many names used for Thalidomide. In total it was marketed under fifty-one names, in eleven European, seven African, seventeen Asian, and eleven countries throughout the Americas.
Thalidomide is a non-barbiturate hypnotic drug (essentially a sleeping aid), and was first re-discovered by the pharmaceutical company Chemie Grunenthal in Germany in 1954. By 1957, it was actively marketed in Germany and many other countries throughout the world. It was designed to treat minor ailments such as colds, coughs and flu; but was also prescribed for post operative sleeplessness, backache, headache and all sorts of other ailments. Following a vigorous advertising campaign which stressed that it was “both safe for mother and child”, it was also then prescribed to women for severe morning sickness.
So, for the lay person, how does Thalidomide work?
Thalidomide targets the blood vessels and nervous system. If taken during the first three months of pregnancy, it affected the development of the foetus. It worked by crossing the placental barrier causing developmental deformities in the limbs, heart, lungs, and all the other internal organs, and in some cases brain damage. The majority of babies were born with flipper like limbs, a condition called Phocomelia.
The drug was first marketed in Britain in April 1958, by Distillers Company (Biochemicals) Limited, under the names Thalidomide, Distaval, Tensival, Asmaval, Valgis and Valgraine. Its license was withdrawn on 2nd December 1961 – matter of days before my first birthday, and a UK Government warning against prescribing was issued over five months later in May 1962.
Not many years later however, it was being used again. Primarily for research purposes, and for almost every ailment you could think of. Further, it was being prescribed on a ‘named patient’ basis more frequently than anyone could care to imagine.
During the research for my book, first published in 2007, I came across documents that referred to Contergan (another name for Thalidomide) as being tested on women prisoners of war at the concentration camp in Auschwitz by Dr Heinrich Mückter and Dr Otto Ambros who worked there under Dr Josef Mengele.
Mückter and Ambros were Third Reich scientists who, after the end of the war, went on to work for Chemie Grunenthal.
Otto Ambros, was one of Chemie Grünenthal’s Research Directors in the early 1950s. He had also been a chemist and a Director of IG Farben – the German chemical and pharmaceutical industry conglomerate notorious for its role in the holocaust.
The pharmaceutical departments of the IG Farben Cartel used the victims of the concentration camps during human experiments, such as the testing of new and unknown vaccines and drugs. In the Auschwitz files, correspondence was discovered between the camp Commander and Bayer Leverkusen (a part of I G Farben). The correspondence dealt with the sale of one hundred and fifty female prisoners for experimental purposes, “… With a view to the planned experiments with a new sleep-inducing drug we would appreciate it if you could place a number of prisoners at our disposal…”.
Further, IG Farben’s director Fritz ter Meer sent a memo in November 1944, to Karl Brandt, the SS general who ran Hitler’s euthanasia program, explaining that a drug numbered 4589 (with the same chemical formula as Thalidomide) had been tested and was ready for use.
It is now widely believed that this preparation was the forerunner for the preparation that was to become known the world over as Thalidomide.
According to the reply to a Parliamentary question posed in January 2014, some 20,000 live births worldwide, resulted in children being born with some kind of impairment, due to damage caused by Thalidomide. However, countless more mothers miscarried. These miscarriages were not recorded as being Thalidomide related, and it is almost impossible to assess correctly the true scale of the disaster. More accurate estimates put the figure at 100,000 worldwide. Roughly 5,270 Thalidomide Impaired people still survive today worldwide, and 454 Thalidomide impaired people still survive in the UK today.
There is little documentation about the devastating effect the drug had on parents, families, the doctors who prescribed Thalidomide and the doctors who were charged with delivering the babies.
Forty five per cent of Thalidomide babies were abandoned by their parents, many having been advised to do so by doctors, priests, social workers and other “so say” professional who felt they had a right to an opinion. There was a 50% divorce rate amongst the parents, and many GPs panicked and destroyed records (when they realised what the prescription had done) making it difficult for mothers to claim compensation. Then of course, there were the doctors and nurses who delivered us, and pondered our plight for the rest of their lives.
My mother carried with her to her grave guilt for having taken the drug in the first place, despite the fact that she was not aware of the consequences in first place and I never ever blaming her for taking it. Our family GP was never able to look me in the eye, either at the surgery or at Sunday Mass, as he too carried guilt for having prescribed Thalidomide to my mother. And the young student doctor who delivered me, has told me she often thought about me throughout her career. In fact after hearing me in an interview on Radio 4’s Women’s Hour, she wrote to me and we have been in contact ever since. I am honoured to say I will be attending her 80th birthday celebrations this year.
All of this is why it is so important to me personally, that Call The Midwife is covering the subject of Thalidomide. A drama series of this magnitude and popularity is able to use an opportunity to educate and inform so many people.
So as Series five is poised to start on the 17th January, eight new episodes will see the nuns and midwives in London’s East End taking on new challenges.
Episode One will include the birth of a Thalidomide baby girl called Susan, who looks not dissimilar to me! Baby Susan will be delivered by midwife Patsy Mount (Emerald Fennell), who said “As with all our births, it was incredibly moving, and I think of all of the days that we filmed a birth, it was the most sombre and respectful”. A specially made prosthetic baby was used to film the scene, which Heidi Thomas said was treated with special attention by the cast.
In this episode, experienced mother Rhoda Mullick gives birth to a baby with severe deformities but refuses to reject her new-born child. However the father struggles to come to terms with the harsh realities of his daughter’s situation.
The storyline will continue as a thread throughout the series as dots are joined together between the drug and its side-effects.
The word Thalidomide will not be used or referenced because nobody understood the connection or cause at that point in time. The drama plot-line will reflect historical fact when viewers will see the effect of Thalidomide, not just on the mothers and children to which they gave birth, but also on their families and, when reality dawns, on the Doctors who prescribed it.
The series Executive producer Pippa Harris has said the story still has relevance today. “It’s a story which is still going on to this day. It’s not something set in aspic in the past. I think we feel very strongly that it’s an issue that should still be in the public consciousness and discussed and as much done as possible.”
When I addressed the currency of Thalidomide in my book I indicated that “… there is an accident out there waiting to happen”. My view on that has not changed. It is a little known fact that there have already been 100 confirmed Thalidomide babies born in Brazil since the new Millennium.
However, with regard to this much loved drama series, the news gets better and better. Even before series 5 is aired, the BBC have confirmed a commitment to a sixth series in 2017. In my opinion the Thalidomide story line should continue into series six, taking it beyond 1962 by which time the association between Thalidomide and the serious deformities and impairments was confirmed. Logically it should then follow our early days of hospitalisation, our parents determination for society to accept us, and our parents fight for compensation. Without any real support, that particular battle started in 1962 and ended in 1968 after 62 sets of parents who had to issue High Court Writs within 3 years from conception, laid the foundations for the main settlements in 1972.
There is so much that is untold in this story. Whilst it is good to see the issue covered in such a prestigious series, it can only touch upon the very outer periphery of this complex historical medical and social saga.
Whilst I am looking forward to everyone seeing the story-line develop over the coming weeks, I cannot help but think of how surviving parents (my father and parents-in-law included) will react to the way the drama will illustrate how they coped in the austerity of the 1960’s.
I hope they will look upon the series with a sense of pride that, above all else, and in immensely difficult circumstances they did what they thought was best; And for the majority of us, we can have nothing but the greatest admiration and respect for the way they played out this very real “real-life” drama – in their own homes and without the glare of publicity – to bring us to where we are today.