How one scientist averted a national health crisis

Dr Frances Oldham Kelsey : 20th-century American heroine for her role in the Thalidomide case

In 1960, Frances Kelsey was one of the Food and Drug Administration’s newest recruits. Before the year was out, she would begin a fight that would save thousands of lives — though no one knew it at the time.

  • Andrea Tone explains how Kelsey was able to prevent a massive national public health tragedy by privileging facts over opinions, and patience over shortcuts.
  • Video published on 7 June 2018 by TED-Ed.

Why Dissent Matters

Because Some People See Things the Rest of Us Miss

The thalidomide tragedy was averted in the United States because Dr. Kelsey, alone and in the face of fierce opposition, did her job. Her perspective was educated, fresh and unique. If there had been no thalidomide crisis, the United States, with the rest of the world following, would still at some time have brought pharmaceutical regulation into the 20th century. But thalidomide created one of those moments when something had to be done. It could not be ignored in 1961-62, and it led immediately to a better and stronger regulatory system. Maybe someone else would have stopped thalidomide in the United States had Dr. Kelsey not been assigned the NDA, but, interestingly, no one else stopped it anywhere else until it was too late. Dr. Kelsey was the only person in the entire world who said no. She said no to a bad drug application, she said no to an overbearing pharmaceutical company and she said no to vested interests who put profits first. She was one brave dissenter. In the end, the question is not what made Frances Kelsey, but why aren’t there more like her?

Because Some People See Things the Rest of Us Miss

The nature writer Rachel Carson identified an emerging environmental disaster and pulled the fire alarm. Public protests, individual dissenters, judges, and juries can change the world – and they do.

A wide-ranging and provocative work on controversial subjects, Why Dissent Matters tells a story of dissent and dissenters – people who have been attacked, bullied, ostracized, jailed, and, sometimes when it is all over, celebrated.

William Kaplan shows that dissent is noisy, messy, inconvenient, and almost always time-consuming, but that suppressing it is usually a mistake – it’s bad for the dissenter but worse for the rest of us. Drawing attention to the voices behind international protests such as Occupy Wall Street and Boycott, Divest, and Sanction, he contends that we don’t have to do what dissenters want, but we should listen to what they say. Our problems are not going away. There will always be abuses of power to confront, wrongs to right, and new opportunities for dissenting voices to say, “Stop, listen to me.” Why Dissent Matters may well lead to a different and more just future.

Read This is Dr. Frances Kelsey’s story, the globe and mail, MAY 11, 2017.

Dr Frances Oldham Kelsey: 20th-century American heroine for her role in the Thalidomide case

Frances Oldham Kelsey, F.D.A. stickler who saved U.S. babies from Thalidomide, dies at 101

Dr-Frances-Oldham-Kelsey
Dr Frances Oldham Kelsey, the Canadian doctor who played a central role in preventing the drug thalidomide being distributed in the US, has died at 101. Image of Kelsey with President John F. Kennedy signing the 1962 Drug Amendments (FDA051) by the The U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

A Londoner who’s kept the scourge of thalidomide out of the United States has died, leaving behind a legacy of achievement that made her a heroine south of the border.

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy awarded Kelsey the highest honour given to a civilian in the U.S., the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service. Kelsey was only the second woman to receive the award. The new laws would pass and Kelsey would play a leading role giving them force.

Dr Frances Kelsey spent her final years here with family after a trail-blazing career that once led the Baltimore Post-Examiner to call her America’s greatest living heroine.

Sources and more information
  • Frances Oldham Kelsey, F.D.A. Stickler Who Saved U.S. Babies From Thalidomide,
    Dies at 101
    , NYtimes, AUG. 7, 2015.
  • Frances Oldham Kelsey – a true American hero turns 100,
    Baltimore Post-Examiner, July 26, 2014.
  • America’s Greatest Living Heroine Frances Oldham Kelsey – 98 and forgotten,
    Baltimore Post-Examiner, February 11, 2013.
  • Thalidomide and the 1962 Kefauver-Harris Drug Amendments, FDA.
  • About the life and work of Dr. Kelsey: Autobiographical Reflections, FDA.