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Topic section 3: Consequences of Thalidomide
Consequences of Thalidomide
Eddie Freeman lives with his wife Geraldine and their two children in the west of England. In the winter of 1958, when several weeks pregnant, Edd

After taking just two pills, Mrs Freeman felt a tingling in her hands and
didn't take any more

ie’s mother was suffering from bronchitis. This developed into pneumonia and a doctor was called. The doctor prescribed her a sedative called Distaval, a trade name for a new drug: thalidomide.

After taking just two pills, Mrs Freeman felt a tingling in her hands and didn’t take any more. Unbeknown to her, the safety of thalidomide was already being questioned. It later became linked to the births of unusually high numbers of seriously malformed babies and, in the face of growing concern, thalidomide-based drugs were gradually withdrawn. By then, however, over ten thousand children from more than forty different countries had been harmed. Many died soon after birth, but today, in Britain alone, nearly five hundred people still live with the effects of the drug.

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Eddie Freeman.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
The disabling results of thalidomide included brain damage and deafness, but for the majority of children the effects were purely physical. In most cases, the drug interfered with the development of a baby’s limbs and, like Eddie, many were born with severely underdeveloped arms and legs.

As the scale of the tragedy emerged, it was recognised that the surviving children would, at least initially, need special care to help them cope with daily life. Having sanctioned the use of thalidomide, the government wanted to be seen to be trying to repair the damage it had caused. In this Utopian era, when technology was believed to provide the best solutions to all kinds of problems, artificial limbs were recommended.

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Eddie's last pair of artificial legs, c1969.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

By necessity, the prostheses made for children affected by thalidomide were different from those in standard use. Unlike the majority of amputees, most of the children lacked normal hip and shoulder joints. This meant that conventional limb substitutes could not be adequately fitted. So, when Eddie was just two years old, he was taken to the Limb Fitting Centre at Queen Mary’s Hospital, Roehampton, in south west London, and fitted with the first in a series of experimental arm and leg prostheses.

Every child was assessed for his or her personal needs. Each set of artificial limbs was created and, if necessary, modified on an individual case basis. Eddie was initially fitted with a pair of legs; the ar
Picture: OTHER006rs12.jpg

Cartoon by Eddie Freeman: “…it was just like being a baby version of Robocop.”
Credit: Eddie Freeman

ms followed several months later. The technology was itself evolving by trial and error and for the children, whose small bodies might be almost entirely encased within complex limb systems, the experience could at times be both physically and emotionally overwhelming.

The prostheses have since been viewed by some people as an attempt to‘normalise’ what was perceived as abnormal. If true, this was not very successful, as suggested by Eddie’s satire on his appearance when wearing them. Eddie has mixed views about the appliances. While he discarded his gas-powered arms quite quickly, he wore his artificial legs for nearly a decade and, despite numerous falls, was reluctant to stop wearing them. But a new level of freedom came when he first used a powered wheelchair a freedom that other technologies have further enhanced. Since passing his driving test, his mobility has been greatly extended by a series of conventional road vehicles, specially adapted to allow Eddie to control them with his own, rather than artificial, limbs.

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Land mines in Cambodia
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Around the world, one person every half hour is either killed or seriously injured by a landmine. After years of conflict, Cambodia contains numerous minefields. In 1983, Lim stepped on a landmine while helping to cut a clearing in a bamboo forest.  > more

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World War One Veteran
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The First World War created huge numbers of amputees, leading to a crisis in limb supply in Britain, but also to gradual improvements in limb design. In 1917, Private Gray left hospital having lost his right arm on a battlefield in France.  > more
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