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Celebrating Frances Oldham Kelsey

Frances Oldham Kelsey

Frances Kelsey receiving the President’s Distinguished Federal Civilian Service Award from President John F. Kennedy in 1962. Courtesy FDA History Office, Rockville, Maryland.

Today the first Kelsey Award was presented to its namesake, Frances Oldham Kelsey. In the future, the Kelsey Award will be presented each year to a Food and Drug Administration staff member, the New York Times reported on Monday.

Kelsey began working at the FDA in 1960, at a time when pharmaceuticals barely went through any testing before being administered to patients—and the testing that was performed was inconsistent and uncontrolled. She and her colleagues were pushing for both more and consistent tests when an application for the sedative Kevadon crossed her desk. Kevadon, better known as thalidomide, was a drug most often prescribed in Europe for morning sickness. Several months later the babies of these mothers would be born with missing or deformed limbs. Kelsey fought to keep thalidomide off the shelves in the United States until the FDA could find out more about it—and thwarted thalidomide’s presence in the U.S. You can learn more about Kelsey and thalidomide on our Infamous Science episode of Distillations.

Many pharmaceutical regulations that have been put in place since the 1960s can be linked back to Frances Oldham Kelsey. Who do you think should receive the Kelsey Award next year?

Posted In: History | Policy

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