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.