See Dr. Frances Kelsey's Portrait
By Linda Bren
It was early 1942 and war was raging in the jungles of the Pacific. In addition to fighting the Japanese, Allied troops found themselves
under attack by malaria-carrying mosquitoes. And since enemy soldiers had already captured several plantations of cinchona trees, the
source of the anti-malarial quinine, the search was on for an effective quinine substitute to combat the disease. A possible treatment--in the
form of a dark, inky substance--arrived for testing in the pharmacology department at the University of Chicago. Pharmacologist Frances
Oldham Kelsey, like many other university researchers throughout the country, had enlisted in the search for synthetic cures for malaria.
As it turned out, the inky substance had been sent by a veterinarian in Texas. "He said that he had just tried it on his secretary without ill
effects," says Kelsey, "and he planned next to try it on cattle. It showed the relative value placed on women and cattle in Texas at that
time," Kelsey says with amusement. The good humor and equanimity Kelsey displays at this slight are symptomatic of the way she
approached most of life's adversities.
The war ended without finding a good substitute for quinine. But Kelsey did learn something valuable from the experience. She learned
that rabbits metabolized quinine rapidly, but pregnant rabbits had less ability to break down the drug, and embryonic rabbits could not
break it down at all. She also learned that drugs could pass through the placental barrier between mother and unborn child. These insights
would serve Kelsey well some 15 years later when in early 1960, as a new Food and Drug Administration employee, she was asked to
evaluate a drug most thought was harmless. That drug was thalidomide.
Although pressured by the manufacturer to quickly approve a drug already in widespread
use throughout the rest of the world, Kelsey held her ground. When she repeatedly asked for
more data and effectively forestalled the approval of thalidomide, Kelsey did more than keep a
dangerous drug off the market. She set into motion a series of events that would forever
change the way drugs are tested, evaluated, and introduced in America.
In recognition of Kelsey's vigilance, President John F. Kennedy, on Aug. 17, 1962,
presented her with the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a U.S. civilian: the medal for
Distinguished Federal Civilian Service. And nearly 40 years later, Kelsey was once again
honored. On Oct. 7, 2000, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in