Frances Oldham Kelsey (1914-)

Frances Kelsey receiving President's Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service from President John F. Kennedy. Credit: Courtesy of Images from the History of Medicine (NLM).

Frances Oldham Kelsey is a naturalised US physician and pharmacologist. She was born in British Columbia, Canada on 24 July 1914. She received her PhD in pharmacology from the University of Chicago in 1938, and her MD in 1950.

In 1960 she began working for the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) as a medical officer reviewing new drugs licensing applications. In her first month, and against great pressure, she denied a licence to the drug thalidomide because of the lack of clinical evidence about its side effects. Shortly after, thalidomide’s devastating effects became known. Over 10,000 children were born with birth defects worldwide.

The denial of a licence for thalidomide in the United States meant its impact there was limited. For this, Kelsey received the President’s Medal for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service from President John F Kennedy. This is the highest award the US government can give a civilian. Kelsey was only the second woman to receive the honour.

Dr Kelsey retired from the FDA in 2005. The FDA created the annual Dr Frances O Kelsey Safety Excellence Award in recognition of her work and commitment.