“How do they know that?”: Martin Johnson on Thalidomide, Campaigning, and his book, The Thalidomide Catastrophe.

The Thalidomide Catastrophe, a book designed to chronicle the history of the Thalidomide disaster, was co-authored by three men. 

One of the authors, Martin Johnson, agreed to be interviewed for this blog about his role in the writing and publication of the book.  When talking, he comes across as well-read and softly spoken; he also has a lot to say, before I begin to ask questions. 

Noting how he read my review of The Thalidomide Catastrophe (click here to view) he notes how the review referred to the impact of the photographs in The Thalidomide Catastrophe.

“We put quite a lot of thought into that” he says, as they were designed to illustrate the full impact of the damage Thalidomide caused. Although The Thalidomide Catastrophe chronicles the history of the drug, it does not shy away from the people affected by the drug. 

“Our primary aim is to set out a concise history”  Doctor Johnson continues, noting that “it is serious history, it’s intended to stand as a foundation block for the campaigning, and to give people in the campaign the, it’s not  all the evidence they need, it’s the locations of the evidence.” 

Comparing this to a summery sheet, a document used in court cases, Doctor Johnson said that he sees the book as a summary of evidence for ongoing cases. 

Campaigns are still ongoing for the people affected by Thalidomide; attention has recently turned to Germany, where Thalidomide was made. According to an article in The Times, there were promises made by a German Minister, for 465 surviving Bristish victims to have support. However, the German government did not follow through on these promises that were made; discussions are being held by campaigners about what happens next. 

Describing how he became involved with the book, Doctor Johnson describes meeting Tina Gallagher. Tina is a Thalidomide survivour, who was born without hands or arms, as well as what is described as ‘flippers’ for feet; “the level of injustice” that she and other people affected by the drug impacted Doctor Johnson significantly. (Click here to see more.)

He explains how he met Nick Dorbick and Guy Tweedy, two fellow campaigners; they introduced him to Mikey Argy (MBE). All three were affected by Thalidomide, and all three are campaigners. 

Argy in particular is described as being a “devestatingly effective Parliamentary lobbyist”.

Doctor Johnson became involved further when Tobias Arndt, a co-author of The Thalidomide Catastrophe, sent him a copy of the first patent of Thalidomide in english. This was also something documented in Attacking The Devil, a documentary about the journalistic campaign around Thalidomide. There was a meeting at a health and welfare committee in Leeds a few days later; Doctor Klaus Newman looked list of documented affects, reacting only to say “How did they know that?”

“That was really the trigger, the start of the investigation” said Doctor Johnson.

At the time other leads were uncovered; this lead Doctor Johnson to contact Ray Stokes, the other author of the book.

Describing how he was positioned as the main information gather, Doctor Johnson said that he and Mr Stokes decided to try and write a paper for one of the history journals about Thalidomide. However, this developed into the formation of a book; there was a wealth of material, too much to fit into a five thousand word paper for an academic paper. 

This took six years to complete; information is still being found, however. 

“The challenge to us was to tell the story in a way that could be understood but could not be dismissed.” Said Doctor Johnson, when reflecting on the task of writing the history of Thalidomide. 

“We mustn’t gloss over some of the detail” he continues, reffering to the long list of chemical names and terms documented in the book.

He is also careful to state that the book had to be carefully worded due to potential legal issues; this contributed to the seven/eight year period as to why the book took so long to be published.

The Thalidomide Catastrophe is out now. For more information about Thalidomide, contact The Thalidomide Trust. 


  1. Alex Srdarevic-Lewis
    July 8, 2018 / 10:23 pm

    How many people were effected by or with this drug? Why aren’t they held to account?

    • mademoisellewomen
      July 10, 2018 / 10:17 am

      That’s a question that only the book can answer.. Out of curiosity, you sent me an email with nothing in the body. What was that about?

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