Antje Van Kerckhove receives the Antonie Luyendijk-Elshout Early Career Impact Award

The HHH board is delighted to announce that Antje Van Kerckhove has received the first edition of the Antonie Luyendijk-Elshout Early Career Impact Award for outreach projects stemming from her research on DES (diethylstilbestrol), which she conducted for her Master’s thesis. DES, a synthetic estrogen, was prescribed to pregnant women until the late 1970s under the mistaken belief that it would prevent miscarriages. To this day, children who were exposed to the drug in the womb suffer from adverse health outcomes related to the reproductive organs.

While DES is a well-known medical problem in the Netherlands and the United States since the 1970s, it has never gained much attention in Belgium. Unlike in these countries, there is no adapted care provision and no compensation fund for Belgian DES-victims. In other words, the victims are – both on a political and medical level – not recognized.

Antje’s research resulted in two academic publications, one in the Dutch journal on gender history, Historica, and another one in the international journal Social History of Medicine. You can also read a blogpost (in Dutch) in which Antje summarizes her most important research findings. However, the most impressive impact of the research lies in the assistance it provided to the community of DES victims. By initiating various outreach projects, Antje Van Kerckhove’s research contributed to a better medical and political understanding of the DES problem in Belgium.

DES advertisement
Source: American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 1957

The outreach projects included:

A retrospective event with DES victims
Upon completion of her thesis, Antje communicated her findings to DES victims. This led to a retrospective event in March 2022, co-organized by the patient organization DES in Belgium, during which Antje engaged in discussions about her research with participants of the study and other DES victims.

Open letter
Antje’s research findings catalyzed collaboration between the DES patient organization and the academic community. This collaboration culminated in the writing of an open letter authored by Tinne Claes and Philippe Tummers, with active involvement from Anita Vandersmissen, Myriam Mestiaen, investigative journalist Greet Pluymers, and Antje herself. In this letter they called for the righting of historically rooted injustices towards DES victims and demanded action to bring the – still pressing – issue of DES to the attention in medical and political spheres . The letter was signed by 121 Belgian DES victims, physicians, DES experts from Belgium and abroad, and academics from various fields working on the topic of medicine.

The open letter can be read here. The full list of signatories can be found on the website of the patient organization DES in Belgium.

Roundtable discussion with DES victims, experts, and politicians
The open letter resulted in a roundtable event in May 2023 organized by the offices of Minister of Health Frank Vandenbroucke, Vice Prime Minister Petra De Sutter, and Minister of the Environment Zakia Khattabiin. The focus of the roundtable was on gaining a clear understanding of the issue, hearing the expectations of DES victims, and exploring concrete solutions. A diverse group of experts and DES victims participated, including Antje and Tinne Claes representing the historical field. However, despite these efforts, no concrete political action has been taken yet. DES victims continue to advocate for recognition and seek ways to raise awareness about their plight.

Overall, Antje’s research not only highlighted the overlooked history of DES in Belgium but also catalyzed concrete political action, giving voice DES victims in their quest for justice and recognition.