Imagine the irony for me. I was born without arms due to the morning sickness medication, “Thalidomide” and Dr. Frances Kelsey refused to approve the drug for use in the United States in the early 1960’s preventing the potential birth of literally hundreds of thousands of birth defects in the U.S.A.! Irony for me because my life has turned out to be a huge blessing “because” of my situation but the truth is, the same can’t be said for thousands of others. I am writing this today because a true hero has passed away. Less than 24 hours after receiving The Order of Canada in her home in London, Ontario, she died peacefully with her proud family present. I want to write about her for many reasons but the primary one is what she did and when she did it!
I realize I broach this subject a great deal. Maybe it’s being my age of 55 and my reference point is based on that, but my reasoning is to highlight how far we have come as a culture. When I discuss how the medical prognosis for me as a newborn was void of any hope, it isn’t to provide melodramatic tension, it was real! In around 1960, Frances Kelsey was a young, “female” scientist! You can Google her for her amazing story but imagine all the obstacles she faced? She even went to McGill in the late 1950’s to study her field and was from Cobble Hill, British Columbia. I’ve never been there but I’m guessing it’s small. So picture that you are a very intelligent young woman and with no disrespect, the majority of your female peers are content finding a husband, getting married and starting a family. Again not judging, it’s just the way things were back then. Instead, she gains admission into one of Canada’s most prestigious Universities, in Montreal (a tad bigger than Cobble Hill), becomes one of the top of her class, which I’m assuming was mostly men, and her first job is with the Federal Drug Administration in the United States! Then, as a “welcome to the job” gift, she is handed a file regarding a sleeping pill they want to sanction for use on pregnant women to take at the beginning or their pregnancy. My knowledge of the story is her bosses were pressured into “fast-tracking” the approval by a very powerful pharmaceutical company who one can only imagine saw practically neon dollar signs of profit from this drug. Frances Kelsey said “NO!” She not only saw a problem in the data, but her instinct told her, “Should we be giving this to pregnant women?” I could write for days about this but let me make my point.
Heroes don’t always wear capes, play a sport, sing a song, act in a movie or have a reality show! Doctor Frances Kelsey was a real life hero and not just because of the end result. Her courage from the time Dr. Kelsey chose to follow her dreams is the stuff of true legend. Imagine if we all believed that one common person can change the world? What if that person is “You”?
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy personally, in front of the White House, presented Dr. Kelsey with the Award for Distinguished Civilian Service. It was in recognition of her strength and courage in the face of countless forms of pressure and intimidation. To refer to the Globe & Mail article on her today (Friday, August 7, 2015), she acted as a “Guardian of the Public Trust”. I’m not suggesting we are all in a position to make a choice that would get us a Presidential Medal, or the Order of Canada but no matter what we do with our day, every day, are we doing it with honour, and dignity, and pride? Are we practicing ethics and morals and standing up to injustice and inequity? Most imortant, are we doing it with humility? I never met Frances Kelsey, although today I am profoundly regretting that fact, but I do know for a fact she would be finding all this attention overwhelming. As I heard her say in an interview once, and I am paraphrasing, “I just did what was expected of me to the best of my ability and history proved me correct”! What will history say about you?
Dr. Kelsey should be a shining example, especially to women, that there is a hero living inside all of us and all that is required is stand and up and be counted!
Dr.Frances Kelsey…thank you for you. We will never forget you!