Friday, September 17, 2010

She saved Americans from the horrors of thalidomide

In 1962, U.S. president John F. Kennedy presented a medal to Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey for her courageous role in keeping thalidomide from American medicine cabinets. The doctor was honoured again this week by the Food and Drug Administration, her former employer. She was born in 1914 at Cobble Hill, B.C. BELOW: Dr. Kelsey at her home at Chevy Chase, Md.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
September 17, 2010


Fifty years ago, Dr. Frances Kelsey saved untold babies from deformity and mothers from heartache.

A single line in a medical journal made her suspicious of a new sedative, as users reported minor numbness in toes and fingers. In a fetus, such effects on developing nerve tissue could be catastrophic. As a medical officer for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, she demanded further testing, sparking a two-year battle with the manufacturer, the William S. Merrell Company of Cincinnati.

In an age of wonder drugs and a trust in science, when advertising agency Mad Men made pill-popping as American as apple pie, a mother of two working from a cubbyhole office resisted pressure from a major pharmaceutical firm.

The drug she kept from American medicine chests was to be marketed as Kevadon. The world remembers it by its generic name — thalidomide, today a byword for science and marketing gone astray. Thousands of babies around the world were born without limbs, or with flipper-like appendages, a terrible toll for mothers seeking simple relief from the rigors of pregnancy.

A grateful nation thanked Dr. Kelsey, who was hailed as a heroine in headlines and who received a medal from President John F. Kennedy. Her stand led to tougher regulations in food and drug use.

This week, Dr. Kelsey, only five years retired at age 96, is being celebrated again for her perseverance. In a ceremony in Washington, DC, she received on Wednesday from her former employer the inaugural Kelsey Award for “excellence and courage in protecting public health.”

Gone unremarked was her idyllic childhood on Vancouver Island, where she tried to satisfy a restless curiosity about the natural world by exploring the forests surrounding the family home.

“We had 32 acres, most of it in woods, a little stream running through it,” she said Thursday by telephone from her home at Chevy Chase, Md. “I was born right in our home in Cobble Hill. The doctor rode over on horseback.”

Her father, Frank Oldham, a retired British artillery officer, and her Scottish mother, Katherine Stuart, settled in the farming village in the Cowichan Valley about 50 kilometres north of Victoria. Within a fortnight of the birth of their second child, named Frances Kathleen Oldham, Europe was embroiled in war.

Her father rejoined the armed forces that fall and did not return home from the Great War for four years.

“I remember my brother and I were having supper when he walked in,” she said. “We stopped eating long enough to shove some little presents we had for him and then went back to eating. My mother said it was the most pathetic thing she’d ever seen.”

It was her mother who promoted the education of a daughter who counted among her maternal aunts a lawyer and a doctor.

“I enjoyed learning. I wasn’t brilliant, but I was a smart kid. I grew up being encouraged with thoughts of going on to college.”

She boarded at the all-girl Saint Margaret’s School in Victoria before graduating to Victoria College, where classes were held at Craigdarroch Castle, a mansion high on a hill in the capital city. She recalls scandalizing classmates by choosing a male student as a partner for the dissection of a cat in biology class, which was seen to be a too-intimate process to have been conducted with a member of the opposite sex.

She then enrolled at McGill University in Montreal, earning a science degree in 1934 and a masters the following year.

With the encouragement of a McGill professor, she sought a position with the noted researcher E.M.K. Geiling at the University of Chicago.

“I wrote him a letter, signed my name, Frances Oldham. To my surprise, I got a letter back, airmail special delivery, saying if I could be there before the week ended I could take an assistantship and qualify for a fellowship. The only thing was the American doctor addressed me as Mr. Oldham.

“I said to my McGill professor, ‘I really should tell him and give him a chance to back out.’ He said, ‘Don’t be stupid. Accept the job. Say you’ll be there when he wants you. Just sign your name with Miss in brackets.’ ”

She got the position, though she later learned “Dr. Geiling was appalled when he got my (acceptance) letter.”

While completing a doctorate in pharmacology, she helped conduct animal studies that led to the discovery of the toxic ingredient in a medicine blamed for the deaths of 107 children.

In 1943, she married fellow faculty member J. Ellis Kelsey. She gave birth to two daughters while in medical school. She later edited a journal of the American Medical Association and taught pharmacology in South Dakota, where she also offered medical services to remote hamlets.

She became a naturalized American citizen in 1955, fulfilling a pact made with her husband.

“If became an American, he’d become an Episcopalian,” she said. “He did, and I did.”

She still has connections to Canada. In 1994, the doctor attended the groundbreaking ceremony for Frances Kelsey Secondary School at Mill Bay, north of Victoria. As well, a daughter lives at London, Ont., while her sister, Monica, lives in Victoria.

After her husband took a job in Washington, she found work with the FDA. Examining thalidomide was one of her first assignments.

In 1962, President Kennedy presented her with the highest award for the federal civil service, becoming only the second woman to be so honoured. She bought a new dress for the occasion.

“Shook my hand. Put a medal around my neck.”

Later that year, on the tenth day of a month the world remembers for the October Missile Crisis, she was invited to the White House as the president signed into law tough new regulations. When he completed his signature, he reached across the desk to hand her the pen. She has it still.