Frances Kelsey: Unsung Canadian Hero

UPDATE: Click here to listen to a radio interview about Dr. Kelsey from CBC’s On the Island.

UPDATE 2: Help Right the Wrong – sign the petition to support Canadian survivors of thalidomide.

Earlier this week, the federal Department of Canadian Heritage released the results of a national survey that included the question: Which Canadians have inspired you the most over the last 150 years?

Complied from the answers was a list of Top 10 Canadian Heroes. Among this list are the usual suspects of Canadian national personalities: John A Macdonald, Pierre Trudeau, etc. Sadly, this list of heroes does not include any heroines – not a single woman.

In a nation where we are constantly reminded about our national mythologies of old white men, railways, resources, and benevolence, it is perhaps not surprising that a non-male identified person failed to make this list. Unless they were somehow involved in a war, there has been little effort on the part of governments, past and present, to identify women protagonists in the national story. This is, of course, also true for Indigenous, racialized, and Queer communities.

To disrupt a cycle of national identity construction that values men over women and grand narratives over discussion, I would like to make the case for one of my Top 10 Canadian Heroes. Her name is Dr. Frances Kelsey and she was born in Cobble Hill, British Columbia, in 1914. Now 99 years old, she might just be the most famous Canadian you’ve never heard of.

Dr. Kelsey earned both her Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees from McGill University, Montreal, in 1934 and 1935. In 1938, she earned her PhD from the University of Chicago, where she taught until 1950.

In 1960, Dr. Kelsey began work with the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) where she became chief of the Division of New Drugs, director of the Division of Scientific Investigations, and deputy for Scientific and Medical Affairs, Office of Compliance.  During her first month at the FDA, Dr. Kelsey stood up to pressure to approve the release of a sleeping pill for pregnant women called thalidomide.

The United States National Library of Medicine notes:

The task [of approving thalidomide] was supposed to be a straightforward review of a sleeping pill already widely used in Europe, but Kelsey was concerned by some data suggesting dangerous side effects in patients who took the drug repeatedly. While she continued to withhold approval, the manufacturers tried everything they could to get around her judgement. In November 1961, reports began to emerge in Germany and the United Kingdom that mothers who had taken thalidomide during pregnancy were now having babies with severe birth defects. Dr. Helen Taussig learned of the tragedy from one of her students and traveled to Europe to investigate. By testifying before the Senate, Tauusig was able to help Kelsey ban thalidomide in the United States for good. At least 4000 children in Europe were affected by the drug, but thanks to Kelsey’s rigorous professionalism a similar tragedy was averted here in America.

Dr. Kelsey’s warnings about the drug were initially ignored in Canada. The drug was approved for use here and led to hundreds of children born with birth defects. However, Kelsey’s research and work in the United States were eventually recognized in Canada, leading to the banning of the drug and the prevention of much more needless suffering. Kelsey was influential in creating amendments to FDA regulations and bringing about more stringent regulations for the protection of the patient during drug investigations.

Dr. Kelsey has been recognized many times for her accomplishments, including having a high school near her birthplace named after her. She was awarded a President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service by President John F. Kennedy in 1962.

This is only a summary of Dr. Kelsey’s career and her fight to ban thalidomide. Her accomplishments are certainly impressive and, given her contributions to the history of maternal healthcare, medicine, and public policy in North America, it seems obvious that Dr. Kelsey should be recognized as a person of national historic significance.

In my opinion, Dr. Kelsey should qualify for recognition under Section 4.5 (Canadians Who Developed an Image of Canada Abroad) of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board guidelines. However, Dr. Kelsey is not eligible to even be considered by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) as a national historic person. Although Parks Canada, the department responsible for the board, has claimed that it wishes to direct “more attention to the history of Aboriginal Peoples, women and ethno-cultural communities in Canada,” there is one policy of the HSMBC that works against Dr. Kelsey’s designation. According to the Board’s General Guidelines, only “Persons deceased for at least twenty-five years may be considered for designation of national historic significance.”

If Dr. Kelsey lives to be 105, under the Board’s criterion she would not be considered for her accomplishments until 2045. This arbitrary clause reflects an antiquated idea of historical significance. If the HSMBC and Parks Canada are serious about working towards a greater recognition for “Aboriginal Peoples, women and ethno-cultural communities,” they must eliminate this criterion and create a more flexible and inclusive set of guidelines.

This most recent list from the Department of Canadian Heritage is a revealing insight into the pervasiveness of male-dominated national myth-making. Without national recognition of persons such as Dr. Kelsey, it is unlikely many Canadians will ever know her story. We must make our own lists, but we must also put pressure on the gatekeepers of national history. The HSMBC criteria for designating people and places reflect a version of historiography rooted in the board’s 1919 creation. Board members, and the minister responsible for the board, Leona Aglukkaq, need to hear from Canadians. Dr. Kelsey’s accomplishments, and the accomplishments of so many others, deserve to be recognized.

If you would like to see Dr. Kelsey recognized as a person of national historic significance, download the application to the HSMBC (below). The application has been filled out but requires your name/address in sections 1 & 7. Complete the application and send it along to the contact provided in the document. Don’t forget to carbon copy the Minster responsible (Leona.Aglukkaq@parl.gc.ca) as she has the ability to override HSMBC decisions. The time to recognize Dr. Kelsey is now! 

ApplicationHSMBC_FrancesKelsey_Application

(Post by Kelly Black. Twitter: @K_elly_B)

Learn more about Dr. Kelsey:

  • Bren, Linda. “Frances Oldham Kelsey: FDA Medical Reviewer Leaves Her Mark on History”. FDA Consumer, March-April, 2001.
  • Geraghty, Karen. “Profile of a Role Model – Frances Oldham Kelsey, MD, PhD”. Virtual Mentor – American Medical Association Journal of Ethics, 7 (7) July 2001.
  • Mintz, Morton. “’Heroine’ of FDA Keeps Bad Drug Off of Market”. The Washington Post. p. Front Page, 1962-07-15.
  • The Story Of The Laws Behind The Labels”. FDA Consumer, June 1981.
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Dr. Kelsey and President Kennedy