The Drug Detective
If you were someone who liked to cut corners, Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey was your worst nightmare. In this episode, we dive into the global health crisis that left thousands of children deformed or dead across Europe. One courageous woman was determined to halt the epidemic before it hit the shores of the United States.
Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey was born July 24, 1914 in Vancouver, Canada. The daughter of a retired British naval officer, Frances was expected to have the same level of education as her brothers; however, growing up a farm, her options were initially limited. Her first formal education was near her home where she attended the all-boys Leinster Preparatory School as the only female student for a handful of semesters. She eventually transferred to boarding school at the all-girls Saint Margaret’s school where she graduated early at the age of 15.
There on, her decision to pursuit science as a woman was nothing short of audacious given the boy’s club that largely dominated the field at the time. Soon enough, Kelsey distinguished herself among her class and went on to obtain her Bachelor’s and Master’s in Pharmacology. She actually intended to pursuit a Biochemistry Master’s degree, but the class was full (we have all been there) so she stuck with Pharmacology. Keep in mind the year is now 1935 and we are in the throes of the Great Depression; jobs are hard to come by, especially if you’re a woman in higher ed. In an attempt to find work, our young Frances petitions to Professor Gelling at the University of Chicago for her PhD. She soon receives a letter of congratulations addressed to Mr. Frances Oldham Kelsey and is mistakenly offered the job. She accepts nonetheless and later discovers (with some prior inclination) that Professor Gelling was horrified when he realized he had admitted a woman.
Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey recieves the Federal Civilian Service Medal from President JFK
It is at her time in Chicago that Frances is first exposed to the dangers of unregulated medicine. As part of her doctoral research, the Gelling lab researched the drug Elixir Sulfanilamide, which ultimately led to 107 deaths in America before it was withdrawn from the market. The pharmaceutical company involved had added the ingredient diethylene glycol to make the substance easier to swallow, which was identified to be the toxic component by Frances and her colleagues. Their work eventually contributed to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938.
For her efforts, she was offered faculty at the University of Chicago where her research focused mainly on malaria drugs. While doing this, she became particularly interested in the way said drugs passed from mother to fetus. This would heavily inform her stance against Thalidomide years later. Even with her PhD in hand, Frances decided to further pursue her education, obtaining her Medical Doctorate at the University of Chicago in 1950. If that isn’t impressive enough, she also had her two daughters during medical school!
By the time she ended up at the Federal Drug Administration, she was 1 of 12 assigned the position of Medical Officer. Thalidomide was supposed to be a no-brainer, but it didn’t get past her steadfast belief is good evidence and careful scientific evaluation. Frances was eventually appointed head of the FDA’s investigational branch. She continued her work at the FDA until she retired at the tender age of 90. She died August 7, 2005 at 101 years old.
For more information about the life of Frances Oldham Kelsey visit:
To watch President John F. Kennedy address the Thalidomide Crisis (1) and present Dr. Kelsey with the Federal Civilian Service Medal (2):
To learn more about teratogenicity and what happened to the Thalidomide Babies visit:
For images on this page:
All images are free to use and share and not under copyright protection
Hosts: Wafik and Jessica Sedhom
Guest appearances: Nate Zeile and Erika Torvik
Written and Produced by: Wafik and Jessica Sedhom
Edited by: Wafik Sedhom
Prosthetic limbs created for Thalidomide babies in 1960's England.