Frances Oldham Kelsey
Born: July 24, 1914
Cobble Hill, British Columbia, Canada
Died: August 7, 2015
London, Ontario, Canada
One of the most brilliant and courageous pharmacologist physicians and toxicological researchers of the 20th and 21st centuries, Frances Oldham Kelsey, a proud Canadian and long-time American civil servant, passed away at 101 in London, Ontario, at the home of her younger daughter.
Kelsey’s rise to prominence in pharmacology and medicine was as meteoric as it was almost accidental. Born to a prominent family in Cobble Hill, Vancouver Island, B.C. in 1914, she showed an early interest in natural science and academic brilliance. She earned her bachelor of science and master of science (pharmacology) degrees from McGill University in 1934 and 1935. There, she was encouraged to apply for graduate work with Professor EMK Geiling, PhD, MD, a noted researcher who was starting a new department in pharmacology at the University of Chicago. Geiling, mistaking her for a male applicant, accepted her in 1936, and Kelsey gamely took up his offer. He gave her important projects relating to toxicology, while Kelsey proved her gender was no impediment to scientific success.
Kelsey’s work with Geiling began her interest in teratogens (drugs that can cross the placental barrier and cause congenital malformations). Like many research scientists of the time she was also interested in a synthetic cure for malaria, a search which years later bound her to the work of Rachel Carson.
Kelsey earned her PhD in 1938 and her MD in 1950 from the University of Chicago. While on the university faculty, she met and worked with fellow scientist Dr. Fremont Ellis Kelsey. They married in 1943 and in 1947 coauthored with Dr. Geiling the textbook The Essentials of Pharmacology. They continued to revise the book as the field of pharmacology evolved and expanded, with their fourth and final edition published in 1960. In 1952, the Kelseys moved to Vermillion, South Dakota, with their two young daughters, Susan and Christine. In Vermillion, Dr. Kelsey completed her medical internship, continued her research with her husband, taught at the medical school of the University of South Dakota, and practiced medicine throughout the state.
In 1960 the Kelseys moved to Washington, D.C., where Dr. Fremont took a position in the National Institutes of Health and Dr. Frances was hired as one of a handful of medical officers at the Food and Drug Administration. (FDA). Her position there was to review new drug applications for human safety before they could be put on the U.S. market. One of Kelsey’s earliest assignments was a review of the drug called Kevadon, also known as thalidomide, produced by the William S. Merrell Company of Cincinnati, OH. At the time Kelsey took on the review, the drug was already widely prescribed in Western Europe and Great Britain as a sleep aid and was recommended to relieve morning sickness in pregnant women.
Kelsey’s careful review required Merrell to submit more studies with reliable scientific data. She was suspicious of an English study which documented nervous system side effects. Merrell protested and subjected Kelsey to continuing pressure and thinly veiled political harassment to release their drug but Kelsey could not be hurried. A year later researchers in Western Europe began to link thalidomide to clusters of severe birth defects. Babies were born with a condition known as phocomelia in which the limbs were malformed or missing. Many babies were additionally born blind or with malformations of internal organs. Such devastating defects subsequently affected thousands of babies, the exact number of which cannot be precisely known.
Thanks to Kelsey’s careful research and courage, thalidomide was never allowed on the US market and a near disaster was mostly avoided. In 1962 Congress passed tougher drug amendments to aid the work that Frances Kelsey and her colleague were doing at the FDA.
For her courage and foresight, in 1962 President John F. Kennedy conferred the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service on Kelsey. At the same time, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was also being attacked as a bogus attempt to suppress the use of harmless chemical pesticides. Carson and Kelsey, both members of the Audubon Society of Washington DC, knew one another. Carson publically hailed Kelsey’s resistance to personal and political pressure and applauded her for refusing to allow a chemical to be used by the public before knowing its full effects.
Frances Kelsey went on to a distinguished career at the FDA leading the Investigational Drugs Branch and later the Division of Scientific Investigation. She retired after forty-five years of service in 2004. Awarded many honorary degrees, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2000, and in 2010 was awarded the first Dr. Frances O. Kelsey Award for Excellence and Courage in Protecting Public Health.
In a much delayed but deeply appreciated tribute, Canada, which had approved the identical new drug application for thalidomide in 1960 and had not stopped the sale of thalidomide and of consequence had many thousands of children impacted by severe birth defects, passed legislation to compensate thalidomide victims in 2014.
Frances Kelsey returned to Canada in the fall of 2014. Just days after her 101st birthday, she was joyfully awarded the insignia of Member of the Order of Canada, Canada’s highest honor, recognizing her singular achievements and service to science, medicine and humanity. She passed away peacefully the following day.
Linda Lear, author of Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, had the privilege of knowing Dr. Kelsey and her family for many years in Washington, D.C.