Kelsey leaves behind a trailblazing legacy

Doctor who prevented thalidomide from entering U.S. dies at age of 101

Frances Oldham Kelsey was a student at Saanich’s St. Margaret’s School

Frances Oldham Kelsey was a student at Saanich’s St. Margaret’s School

The Order of Canada came late for Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey, who received it last month at the age of 101. A trailblazer for women in a man’s field, Kelsey died in Ontario on Aug. 7.

Today, Kelsey is remembered on both sides of the border, for her role in preventing thalidomide from entering the United States in the 1960s.

According to her biography, she often overlooked the challenges she faced as a woman practising in the male-dominated field of medicine and pharmacology.

It started, she says, right from her grade school days. Born in Cobble Hill, Kelsey was originally known as Frankie Oldham, a nine-year-old student in an all-boys institution near Shawnigan Lake.

But long before she joined the United States Food and Drug Administration in the 1950s, she was a student at Saanich’s St. Margaret’s School, graduating from the class of 1931 at the age of 15 (graduating at 15 was common practice then, she said). After two years at Victoria College (at Victoria High School), Oldham moved to Montreal to study at McGill University, where she was introduced to pharmacology.

Following her completion at McGill she mailed an application for a research assistant position, and a potential PhD candidacy, to the University of Chicago.

An air mail response confirmed it was open to her if she could arrive by March 1, except that it was addressed to ‘Mr. Oldham.’

“… My conscience tweaked me a bit. I knew that men were the preferred commodity in those days,” she wrote. “Should I write and explain that Frances with an ‘e’ is female and with an ‘i’ is male?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said a colleague. “Accept the job, and sign your name as ‘Miss’ in brackets.”

“I do not know if my name had been Elizabeth or Mary Jane, whether I would have gotten that first big step up. My professor at Chicago to his dying day would never admit one way or the other,” Kelsey added.

She met and married Dr. Fremont Ellis Kelsey in 1943 in Chicago.

Despite being new to the FDA when she was tasked with the thalidomide application, she resisted tremendous pressure from her superiors and threats from the drug company to approve the drug.

At the time, thalidomide was approved in 46 countries, including Canada, where the disastrous side effects of the drug, such as death, missing limbs and damaged organs, were under reported.

Winning the 2015 Order of Canada was long overdue. Kelsey was awarded similar recognition by the U.S. in 1962, when President John F. Kennedy gave her the Distinguished Federal Civilian Service.

In 1991 the Canadian federal government made a one-time payout to thalidomide survivors of $8.5 million. Earlier this year, the government offered lump sum payments of $125,000 per thalidomide survivor, and said it would make up to $168 million available as annual compensation.

In marking the centennial of Kelsey’s birth, St. Margaret’s renamed its science wing this year, dedicating it in Kelsey’s honour, preserving her legacy.

Mill Bay’s Frances Kelsey secondary school, built in 1995, is also named after her.


Just Posted

Rachel Rivera (left) and Claire Ouchi are a dynamic art duo known as the WKNDRS. The two painted the new road mural at Uptown. (Megan Atkins-Baker/News Staff)
Artistic mural at Uptown brings creativity, fun to summer shoppers in Saanich

Road installation the largest of its kind in Greater Victoria

Kathy and Doug LaFortune stand next to the new welcome pole now gracing the front entrance of KELSET Elementary School in North Saanich. LaFortune completed the piece after suffering a stroke with the help of his wife and son Bear. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)
KELSET school in North Saanich unveils welcome pole on National Indigenous Peoples Day

Carver Doug LaFortune completed pole with the help of his son, wife after suffering a stroke

Victoria police continue to look for missing man Tyrone Goertzen and are once again asking for the public’s assistance in locating him. (Photo courtesy of VicPD)
Victoria police put out another call for help finding missing man

Tyrone Goertzen, 33, was first reported missing June 4

Colwood council is looking at potential summer weekend closures to traffic of a section of Ocean Boulevard at Esquimalt Lagoon, to allow for more of a park-like setting during summer events such as the popular Eats & Beats event, shown here in 2018. (Black Press Media file photo)
Mayor lobbying for summer weekend closures of beachfront Colwood roadway

Rob Martin to bring motion forward to June 28 council meeting

By protesting uninvited in First Nations’ territories, conservationists are acting in a neocolonial or paternalistic manner, says Huu-ay-aht Chief Robert Dennis. Photo by Heather Thomson
A closer look: do Vancouver Island First Nations support the war in the woods?

First Nations/environmentalist old growth alliance uneasy, if it exists at all

The border crossing into the United States is seen during the COVID-19 pandemic in Lacolle, Que. on February 12, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
VIDEO: Border quarantine to soon lift for fully vaccinated Canadians

Eligible travellers must still take multiple COVID-19 tests

Chilliwack secondary school’s principal is apologizing after a quote equating graduation with the end of slavery in the U.S. was included in the 2020-2021 yearbook. (Screenshot from submitted SnapChat)
B.C. student’s yearbook quote equates grad to end of slavery; principal cites editing error

Black former student ‘disgusted’ as CSS principal apologizes for what is called an editing error

Skeena MLA Ellis Ross. (Photo by Peter Versteege)
BC Liberal leadership candidate condemns ‘senseless violence’ of Okanagan church fires

Skeena MLA Ellis Ross says reconciliation isn’t about revenge for past tragedies

A coroner’s inquest will be taking place at the Capitol Theatre in Port Alberni for the next week. (ELENA RARDON / ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS)
Teen B.C. mom who died following police custody recalled as ‘friend to many’

Police sent Jocelyn George to hospital after intoxication had gone ‘beyond the realm’ of normal detox

FILE - In this Nov. 29, 2020, file photo, Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib leaves the field after an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons in Atlanta. Nassib on Monday, June 21, 2021, became the first active NFL player to come out as gay. Nassib announced the news on Instagram, saying he was not doing it for the attention but because “I just think that representation and visibility are so important.” (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)
Nassib becomes first active NFL player to come out as gay

More than a dozen NFL players have come out as gay after their careers were over

Penticton Indian Band Chief Greg Gabriel speaks to the Sacred Hearts Catholic Church burning down early Monday morning, June 21, 2021. (Monique Tamminga Western News)
Penticton band chief condemns suspicious burning of 2 Catholic churches

Both Catholic church fires are deemed suspicious, says RCMP

COVID-19 daily cases reported to B.C. public health, seven-day moving average to June 17, 2021. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infections drop to 90 on Sunday, 45 Monday

Pandemic spread dwindles as 77% of adults receive vaccine

Emergency vehicles are parked outside of the Wintergreen Apartments on Fourth Avenue. (SUSAN QUINN / Alberni Valley News)
Port Alberni RCMP investigate stabbing on Fourth Avenue

Two men were found with ‘significant’ injuries near Wintergreen Apartments

Bernadette Jordan addresses the media following a swearing in ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on January 14, 2019. Jordan says the government will provide $2 million to allow First Nations to continue to strengthen the marine safety system across Canada. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
First Nations receive federal funds to purchase marine rescue boats

Quatsino, Heiltsuk, and Kitasoo First Nation’s among eight across Canada to receive funding

Most Read