Last week was the 100th birthday of Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey, a pharmacist who single-handedly prevented tens of thousands (if not many more) Americans from having birth defects in the 1950s and 60s. She quietly reached her 100th year with little fanfare, but if the average American could remember the amazing gift she gave our nation through her diligent work at the FDA, it is likely that her birthday would have gotten a great deal more attention.
In the 1950s and 1960s, this woman's actions and foresight prevented a birth defect catastrophe in the United States. The potential disaster had to do with the drug Thalidomide, which aggressively marketed to consumers in Europe. The drug was used as a tranquilizer and sedative for pregnant women and it was being advertised as a cure for morning sickness. What European drug regulators did not now, however, was that Thalidomide would pass through the placenta barrier and harmfully affect the development of babies.
Over 10,000 Children Born Without Limbs
With time, it became clear that women who took the drug while pregnant suffered miscarriages and their children had a very high likelihood of suffering extreme birth defects, a large percentage of them being born without any limbs. Because no one knew about the dangers, however, over 10,000 women ended up having babies with catastrophic birth defects throughout the world.
In the United States, though, the story was different and we owe our thanks to Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey for that. While she was employed by the FDA, she was tasked with reviewing Thalidomide and discovered that it could potentially cause nervous system damage. This concerned her, so she delayed the release of the drug in the U.S., pending further study and review. She faced harsh and public criticism for being an overly draconian bureaucrat at the time. Later, though, it became clear that she had singlehandedly prevented countless babies from being born limbless, or with other extreme birth defects.
Where Are Our Hero Pharmacists Today?
It is a shame we do not have more Dr. Kelsey's working with the FDA today because it is likely that even more birth defects and injuries from dangerous drugs (that are still on the market right now) could have been avoided. Americans between the ages of 53 and 55 should be especially thankful to this woman for her work.
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