Paying Tribute to an Extraordinary Alumna: Dr. Frances Kelsey

UPDATED: August 7, 2015  It is with sadness that we share news of Dr. Kelsey's passing early this morning. On July 1, 2015, Dr Frances Kelsey was named to the Order of Canada and just yesterday Ontario Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell had traveled to London, ON to present her medal.  Though recognition in Canada came late, we will never forget this important alumna of our school and her inspiring example of public service and individual tenacity. Here's to a life well-lived.  |  You can read more about Dr Kelsey in the Globe and Mail.

In early March 2015, the Canadian government met with the 95 surviving victims of thalidomide to negotiate long-term compensation. After a long battle, Ottawa then annouced a $180-million compensation package in May, to support surviving victims with an annual pension. Thalidomide was marketed to pregnant women in the 1950s as a morning sickness “miracle pill” in 46 countries, including Canada, but it was soon discovered to have horrific side effects. The drug caused many stillbirths and babies born with serious defects. According to CBC news stories, there were an estimated 10,000 victims of the drug worldwide.

In the wake of the recent media coverage of thalidomide’s terrible legacy, St. Margaret’s was reminded of the courageous work in opposition of the drug carried out by 1931 alumna Dr. Frances Kelsey.

Born in 1914, Dr. Frances “Frankie” Kelsey (née Oldham) is known as a whistle blower who prevented thalidomide from entering the United States. As a result of her actions, thousands of infants were saved from the disastrous side effects of this drug.

In honour of Dr. Kelsey’s centenary birthday, SMS renamed its science wing after this remarkable alumna, paying tribute to her achievements as a scientist. The new name will serve to better recognize Dr. Kelsey as an important historical figure at the school, and ensure that her legacy continues to inspire the young women who call St. Margaret’s home.

St Margaret's Head of School, Cathy Thornicroft (at left) visiting with Dr. Frances Kelsey (centre) and her daughter Christine Kelsey (at right)

Head of School, Cathy Thornicroft (at left) visiting with Dr. Frances Kelsey (centre) and her daughter Christine Kelsey (at right)

Recently, Dr. Kelsey, accompanied by her daughter, Christine, sat down with St. Margaret’s Head of School Cathy Thornicroft to discuss her early life and her time at SMS, and to remind us that there is so much more to her story than her work against thalidomide.

An enthusiastic storyteller, Dr. Kelsey spoke of the 20th century’s most important historical events with honesty and surprising nonchalance. She recounted vivid stories of the Depression years, of living through both world wars, and of her illustrious career, from which she did not officially retire until 2002, after her 87th birthday.

The St. Margaret's School chemistry lab, circa 1926. [SMS Archives 2005-003-070]

The St. Margaret's School chemistry lab, circa 1926. [SMS Archives 2005-003-070]

Dr. Kelsey attributes much of her resilience to strong role models in her family. Her mother was an actress, instilling in her a love for performance. Recitation still comes naturally to Dr. Kelsey, and when asked by Cathy about being Malcolm House vice-captain, she recited the house cheer without missing a beat, despite having graduated over 80 years ago. Having two accomplished aunts, one a doctor and the other a lawyer, Dr. Kelsey was always encouraged to pursue a career, contrary to social norms for women in her time. “I think I liked [the pressure]. I took advantage of it,” she says.

Prior to her time at SMS, Dr. Kelsey attended St. George’s School for girls, also in Victoria. She recalls with great fondness Headmistress Mrs. Suttie, who later taught at St. Margaret’s. Following the closure of St. George’s in June 1928, Dr. Kelsey moved to SMS for her final years of secondary school and senior matriculation (roughly equivalent to Grade 13, the last year of high school in that era).

Frances "Frankie" Oldham | St. Margaret's School yearbook 1929-30    Frances "Frankie" Oldham | St. Margaret's yearbook 1930-31

School photos of Frances "Frankie" Oldham from the St. Margaret's yearbook 1929-30 (left) and 1930-31 (right)

Dr. Kelsey’s time at SMS was punctuated with many accomplishments. She played on the field hockey, basketball, and tennis teams; was top of her class in Latin, French, and English literature; and often wrote for the school magazine. Her report cards hint at her strong character. Dr. Kelsey’s daughter, Christine, read a comment aloud for Cathy: “I think you talked a little much in class. Not only would you get yourself in trouble, you would…” Dr. Kelsey, remembering this comment, cut right in: “Incite others!” Another comment from her science teacher at SMS urged “Frankie” to pursue science, making note of her natural talent and clear interest.

Dr. Kelsey enthusiastically enrolled in a summer biology course at Victoria College, and she went on to complete her BSc and MSc at McGill University. It was at McGill that she made the leap to pharmacology at the suggestion of one of her professors. That professor explained to her that the head of pharmacology at the time, Dr. Raymond Stehle “does not like graduate students very much, but he might like you.”

Indeed, Dr. Stehle soon became Dr. Kelsey’s mentor, and when she completed her MSc, he encouraged her to apply to the University of Chicago’s new pharmacology program for her PhD. Dr. Kelsey did apply and received a prompt reply, but, there was a problem: the correspondence had been addressed to “Mr. Frances Oldham.”

Dr. Kelsey explained: “Frances with an ‘e’ is the female; Francis with an ‘i’ is male. If they had known I was a woman, I don’t think I would have [gotten the offer].” Dr. Kelsey was conflicted, but Dr. Stehle insisted that she “accept, … sign your name, put Miss in brackets afterwards, and go!” And that’s just what she did: “Signed, Frances Oldham (Miss).”

Dr. Frances Kelsey early in her career, a St Margaret's School Alumna

Dr. Kelsey working in the lab early in her career

Dr. Kelsey completed her PhD in 1938, married Dr. Fremont Ellis Kelsey in 1943, and continued to work at the University of Chicago for the duration of World War II. At that time, the Allies were running low on their supply of antimalarial medication, and research institutions across America, the United Kingdom, and Australia cooperated closely to try to develop a new treatment. This work would prove to be incredibly important in Dr. Kelsey’s career. The drug she was testing ended up as an “early illustration—not the first—that the embryo might handle a drug differently from their mother.” More than 20 years later, thalidomide provided further evidence to this earlier finding.

Dr. Kelsey completed her M.D. in 1950, giving birth to two daughters while attending medical school. With both children in tow, Dr. Kelsey and her family moved to Vermillion, South Dakota, where she interned in nearby Yankton. Dr. Kelsey got her licence to practise medicine, so that “when a doctor wanted to go to a meeting or take a vacation, I would take over his practice for a few weeks.”

Both she and Christine agree that the South Dakota years are too often glossed over in stories about her career. It was during those years that Dr. Kelsey became known as the first person to use medical isotopes in the treatment of disease, and she went on to teach other doctors.

After eight years in South Dakota, she was hired at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in Washington, D.C., to evaluate applications to market new drugs. In her first year there, she was assigned to evaluate the application for Kevadon—the U.S. brand name for thalidomide—a sleeping pill for pregnant women. Dr. Kelsey describes the application as being “sketchy” and having insufficient research. “It just didn’t seem right to me, right from the start,” she recalls.

The William S. Merrell Company, seeking to market thalidomide, attempted to go over Dr. Kelsey’s head, even threatening her with a lawsuit. When asked if she ever felt the pressure was simply too much, Dr. Kelsey responded succinctly: “No. I stuck firmly.”

President Kennedy and Dr. Frances Kelsey (a St Margaret's School Alumna)

President Kennedy awarding Dr. Kelsey the President's Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service

For her “excellence and courage in protecting public health,” Dr. Kelsey was awarded the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service, the highest civil service honour in the United States, by President John F. Kennedy in 1962. Almost 50 years later, the FDA awarded Dr. Kelsey the first Kelsey Award in 2010, for which President Barack Obama congratulated her personally.

After a distinguished career in public service, smashing glass ceilings in the first half of the 20th century, and raising two successful children along the way, Dr. Kelsey remains an interesting, engaged woman. She has retained a quick wit and sense of humour, which was apparent with her entertaining story she told during her about catching armadillos for research (because their pituitary gland is similar to a human’s): “[The armadillos] go down the hole, and you don’t dare reach down.” When Cathy asked why, she replied simply, “Because they share it with rattlesnakes!”

“Dr. Kelsey so clearly embodies the mission and values of the school,” says Cathy. “St. Margaret’s is all about helping the girls find their voice. They learn to be respectful, but we want them to voice their opinions.” Even though the ratio of females to males is 13:10 at universities in North America, females remain vastly underrepresented in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). It is the school’s hope that this remarkable alumna’s story will continue to inspire girls pursuing STEM careers as they study in the Dr. Frances Kelsey Science Wing for generations to come.

Written by Martin Laws

Related | Canadian doctor averted disaster by keeping thalidomide out of the U.S. [Globe and Mail] Part of the Globe and Mail's special report on thalidomide, Forgotten but not gone, which was awarded the prestigious Michener Award for public-service journalism.

Read the full edition of the Spring 2015 Spirit magazine, in which this article was the feature story.




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