Frances Oldham Kelsey (1914-2015)
Cobble Hill, British Columbia, Canada
Digital Illustration, 24" x 32", 2022
Working as a reviewer for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1960, Frances Oldham Kelsey noticed a lack of evidence regarding the safety of the drug thalidomide. Through her research, Kelsey found that thalidomide could cause serious birth defects.
Thalidomide was used as a tranquilizer and painkiller. It was prescribed to pregnant mothers to help with morning sickness. The drug’s use was approved in Canada and in most of Europe and Africa. Through her forceful testing, researchers found that when a pregnant woman ingested thalidomide it crossed the placental barrier and could cause birth defects. Her research led to the complete ban of thalidomide in the United States. In 1962 Congress strengthened drug regulations; companies were required to pass a set of rules and to perform strict clinical studies prior to approval for the administration of their products.
John F. Kennedy presented Kelsey with the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service in 1962. She was the second woman to be so honored. She continued her work with the FDA until she retired in 2005 at age 90 and passed away at age 101.