Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Canadian Heroines: Frances Oldham Kelsey

By Terrie Todd

Like me, you’ve probably heard about “Thalidomide Babies.” Like me, you may not have known that almost none of these children were born in the United States. Why? Because the United States never approved thalidomide as a treatment for morning sickness during pregnancy. They have a Canadian woman to thank for that, although it may not have happened had her parents named her Katherine or Susan. Let me explain.

Having known from childhood that she wanted to be a scientist, Frances Oldham attended St. Margaret’s School and Victoria College before obtaining Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from McGill University in the 1930s. After grad, the brilliant woman applied for a fellowship under a renowned pharmacology researcher at the University of Chicago. Thrilled to be accepted, she couldn’t help noticing that the researcher had addressed his acceptance letter to “Mr. Oldham.”

Her professor encouraged her to accept the position despite the misunderstanding. Frances signed the offer, adding “Miss” in parenthesis before her name.

The appalled researcher honored his offer, despite his chagrin at not recognizing the feminine spelling of Frances. In Frances’s words, “When a woman took a job in those days, she was made to feel as if she was depriving a man of the ability to support his wife and child.”

Frances Oldham Kelsey
Frances’s contribution to synthetic cures for malaria confirmed her entitlement to the posting. In 1938 she graduated from the University of Chicago with a Ph.D. in pharmacology. She later married, took her husband’s last name (Kelsey), birthed two daughters, and earned her medical degree. By 1960, the family had moved to Washington, DC where Frances worked for the Food and Drug Administration.

By then, a sleeping pill called Kevadon, manufactured by William S. Merrell Company and now known as thalidomide, was being prescribed around the world to pregnant women to combat morning sickness. Having seen the effects of malaria pills on unborn children, Frances refused to approve the drug for pregnant women until more studies were completed. Pressure from the drug company intensified, but Frances stood her ground. A two-year battle ensued, during which time stories emerged out of the UK and Germany. Women who’d taken the drug were giving birth to babies with missing limbs. In Frances’s homeland of Canada, 115 such infants were born before the abnormalities were officially linked to the drug.

By the time the FDA banned thalidomide in the United States, approximately 100,000 babies with malformations had been born in forty-six countries.

On July 15, 1962, the front-page story in The Washington Post caught attention with the headline, “Heroine of FDS Keeps Bad Drug Off the Market.” Dr. Kelsey was thrust into the limelight. She received the highest honor available to a civilian, the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Services, from the hand of John F. Kennedy.

Frances continued her work with the FDA until the age of ninety. (In subsequent decades, thalidomide proved useful in the treatment of leprosy, AIDS, and certain cancers. The drug has benefited millions of patients around the world.)

The “Kelsey Award” is bestowed on those deserving of recognition in the field. You can find her name in the US National Women’s Hall of Fame and at the Frances Kelsey Secondary School in her hometown of Cobble Hill, BC. In June 2015, she received the Order of Canada. At that event, Mercédes Benegbi, then head of the Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada, praised Kelsey for refusing to bend to pressure from drug companies. “To us,” Benegbi said, “she was always our heroine, even if what she did was in another country.”

Frances Kelsey died in 2015 at the age of 101.


100 Canadian Heroines: Famous and Forgotten Faces, by Merna Forster, Dundurn Press, 2004


The Canadian Encyclopedia

Emmaleen Kimball is 14 when she becomes convinced she really belongs to a troop of traveling circus performers. Why won’t anyone tell her the truth? Was the whole world out to deceive her? And more importantly, did they really think she’d never figure it out?

Bernadette Kimball is 27 with no marriage prospects in sight. And with all the men fighting overseas, that isn’t likely to change. Not that she cares. Who needs a family? Families are just one big mess of secrets and lies.

April Kimball-Madden carries the burden of a secret she promised never to share. How can she tell Emmaleen when she’s never told her own husband the truth? Joey has no idea Emmaleen isn’t really his wife’s little sister and if he ever finds out who her biological father is, it will open a can of worms so big her household will never survive.

Can these three sisters reconcile their worst fears and deepest longings before it’s too late? Will the faith they’ve been taught and the mercy they’ve been shown be enough to bring peace to their hearts even in the midst of war?

April’s Promise was short-listed in both the 2020 Word Awards & the 2020 Braun Book Awards.

Terrie Todd’s novels are set in Manitoba where she lives. She lives with her husband, Jon, in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, Canada where they raised their three children and where her novels are (mostly) set. They are grandparents to five boys.

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  1. Thank you for sharing. One of my college friends was one of these babies, but I never knew about the person behind preventing its approval in the U.S.

  2. Thank you for posting. I had heard of thalidomide babies but didn't realize that there weren't many in the U.S. It doesn't really matter; even one child is too many. I had not heard of Frances Oldham Kelsey, but I was a child when President Kennedy was in office. I'm glad she enjoyed a long life.

    1. I think my interest was piqued by the BBC show, "Call the Midwife."

    2. I used to watch that show all the time!

  3. So intersting. There was a drug in the Us that had similar effects, I think, because I had friends growing up who had deformed arms. Then again, I was a military brat and if the drug was legal in Europe, my friends may have been born there. Such a compassionate woman.

    1. There were a few born in the U.S. but yes, they could have been conceived and spent part of their gestation in Europe.