Skip to content

Remembering Dr. Frances Kelsey, B.C.’s American medical hero

New book tells story of Vancouver Islander crucial in stopping approval of thalidomide in the U.S.

To say that Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey was an extraordinary woman would be quite the understatement.

Born in Cobble Hill — a rural community between Duncan and Victoria on Vancouver Island — she went on to moving mountains in the field of pharmacology, the scientific study of the effects that both drugs, and chemicals have on living organisms.

Kelsey reaped several accolades as one of Canada’s first ever female pharmacologists including having a school named for her in Mill Bay, not to mention marking the meaningful milestone of living past 100.

Dr. Cheryl Warsh, a history professor with Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Frances Kelsey in 2012, just a couple of years before her centenary celebration on July 24, 1914. This incredible opportunity came after the release of Dr. Warsh’s book Prescribed Norms: Women and Health in Canada and the United States since 1800. In this book Warsh had done a chapter on childbirth with a section on birth defects. It’s a chapter in history that Kelsey is intimately connected to through her work in blocking the drug thalidomide from approval for use in the United States.

Thalidomide was sold under the brand names Conterganand Thalomid, and was an oral medication used to treat a number of cancers. It was first marketed in 1957 in West Germany and was sold over the counter at that time. When thalidomide was first released it was promoted to help with anxiety, trouble sleeping, and morning sickness.

Concerns arose after the drug led to the birth of deformed infants when ingested by mothers during pregnancy and it was removed from the European market in 1961.

Kelsey prevented thalidomide from entering the American market, and by the year 1962, she was one of the most famous women in the world. That same year she was the second woman ever to receive the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service from President John F. Kennedy.

“I had read that Dr. Kelsey was originally from Cobble Hill, so I looked her up and did some research like a good historian does, and I had found out that she was still alive, and during that time was living near Washington, D.C.

“The first thing I did was I put together an application for her to get an honourary doctorate through VIU [Vancouver Island University]. I began a relationship talking with her daughters, and I eventually had the opportunity to interview her in person a few years before she had died, which was amazing. I remember being invited to her 100th birthday celebration, but unfortunately I was unable to attend.”

Shortly after turning 100, Kelsey suffered a fall and moved from Washington back to Canada where she lived with her daughter in London, Ont. In June 2015, a month before her 101st birthday Kelsey was named to the Order of Canada.

Mercédes Benegbi, a thalidomide victim and the head of the Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada, praised Kelsey for showing strength and courage by refusing to bend to the pressure of drug company officials and was quoted saying that Kelsey was always our heroine in Canada, even if what she did was in another country.

“Her greatest accomplishment was being a part of the team that kept thalidomide out of the U.S.,” said Warsh. “Over the years she worked on many files that dealt with women’s health. There was another drug called DES which had terrible consequences for children when mothers took it. Another one of her great achievements was how she protected women’s health, and how she educated people on thalidomide and helped them to understand how drugs have to be regarded with a great deal of caution and respect.

“So, there might be drugs that can help you, but you always have to know the downside of them, and if you could become pregnant or are already pregnant you really have to try and stay away from as many drugs as possible because you just never know. Thalidomide taught us just how fragile the fetus is, and how it could be affected by whatever the mother was exposed to.”

Warsh, originally from Montreal, has been living on the island for the past 35 years. She spent just over a decade working on her latest book about Kelsey titled Frances Oldham Kelsey, the FDA, and the Battle against Thalidomide which will be available to purchase on May 21, 2024. Warsh said that some of her biggest highlights while writing her latest book was the relationships she formed with Kelsey’s daughters, and of course getting to sit down with the impressive pharmacology pioneer herself.

“There were also thousands of letters that the public had written to her over the years,” said Warsh. “Reading those letters was very cool and also definitely a highlight for me.”

The sit down interview did not happen until Warsh’s second visit out of her five trips to Washington. Kelsey’s daughters had left for the day when Warsh showed up for the first time, and Kelsey’s caregiver at the time was unable to let her in.

“I said, well I brought chocolates,” chuckles Warsh. “Her caregiver took the chocolates which was a good thing because as it turns out Dr. Kelsey did have a sweet tooth. She then passed along the name and number of her daughter whom I later spoke with on the phone.”

Warsh made a second trip to Kelsey’s home when one of her daughters was present and the interview lasted for four hours.

“She was already 98 by this time and hard of hearing, she wore headphones for our interview and spoke into a device,” said Warsh. “She was great, halfway though our interview she wanted a bourbon. She had a glass of bourbon every night, probably for 40 years. They had offered me one as well but of course I declined as I knew I had to make my way back to where I was staying in Richmond, Virginia.”

Warsh recalls that during her interview, Dr. Kelsey would often get sidetracked by a squirrel that sat outside her window sill, and that she had this old and scruffy cat that she adored.

“I took my hand and clicked my fingers for her cat to come, and she sat on me for the rest of the interview,” said Warsh. “That was that, I guess Frances had figured if her cat liked me, then I must be okay.”

This was just the beginning. Since all of Kelsey’s papers had been donated to the Library of Congress in Washington, Warsh made a total of five trips there.

“I had a research assistant in Washington, and I had research assistants at VIU and together we uploaded everything and put it on hard drives and brought it back and printed everything out. I still have close to 9,000 pages of her records. It was a big collection, she lived a long time and she was a pack rat, and she worked for the government which meant that at that point there were multiple copies of things, a lot of what I looked at hadn’t yet been curated by the Library of Congress.”

With a full-time teaching position at VIU that keeps her pretty busy, Warsh dedicated time to working on a chapter every summer. Warsh said that her book is divided into three parts.

First, her early career.

“The records were so rich, that I was able to give a really good overview as to what it was like for her growing up with her family in Cobble Hill,” said Warsh. “When she was 15, she pretty much finished school, and from there went on to university at Victoria College.”

Victoria College, which is now University of Victoria, was based at Craigdarroch Castle from 1921 to 1946. Warsh then looked at Kelsey’s time at McGill University where she received both her Bachelors and Masters degree in Science.

“She was really remarkable in that she was one of the first women to have a science degree,” said Warsh.

Warsh also spent the first part of her book going though Kelsey’s degrees, her PhD, her war time work, as well as her time with the pharmacology department at the University of Chicago. Kelsey was encouraged by her McGill professors to reach out to noted researcher EMK Geiling, M.D. who at that time was first starting up the department.

As the story goes, with the spelling of Kelsey’s first name (Frances/Francis) Geiling presumed she was a man and was offered the position, which she accepted in 1936. Once she completed her PhD in pharmacology she permanently joined the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1942 where she met fellow colleague Fremont Elis Kelsey whom she married the following year in 1943. Kelsey worked a lot with anti-malarial drugs. Treating malaria with quinine marked the first successful use of a chemical compound to treat an infectious disease.

“Quinine was in the South Pacific and because of the war, all of the nations that you could get it from were cut off,” said Warsh. “At that time allies were looking for alternatives, and people would send in the craziest ideas of what they thought might work during this time. Because Dr. Kelsey was a pharmacologist, everything she doing was though animal research.”

Warsh said the second section of her book is all about thalidomide, while the third looks at Kelsey’s life and career afterwards. When Kelsey was 80 in 1994, Mill Bay’s Frances Kelsey Secondary School was named in her honour. Six years later she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2000. Kelsey died in London, Ont. at the age of 101 on Aug. 7, 2015. Less than 24 hours after her death Ontario’s Lieutenant-Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell visited her home to present her with the insignia of Member of the Order of Canada for her role against thalidomide.

Frances Oldham Kelsey, the FDA, and the Battle against Thalidomide is available to purchase through Oxford Press, Amazon, Chapters, and Indigo.

“The press told me it will also be available as an audio book which I am very excited about,” said Warsh.“It is always important to show number one that you can have great people come from the most unexpected areas. History is not something from somewhere else, history arises from everywhere. What I have found since living on Vancouver Island is that there are a lot of really interesting and accomplished people who have ended up living here.”

About the Author: Chadd Cawson

Read more