Cowichan-born Frances Kelsey still going strong at 100

It isn’t every day that a significant milestone birthday is celebrated, but next month, Frances Kelsey Secondary School’s namesake marks her first century. Frances Kathleen Oldham was born at Cobble Hill on July 24, 1914. In her early years she attended school locally, then completed her schooling at Victoria College, the forerunner of the University of Victoria.

At McGill University in Montreal, she received both a BSc and an MSc in pharmacology. AT the suggestion of one of her professors, she wrote to E.M.K. Geiling, M.D., a noted researcher who was starting up a new pharmacology department at the University of Chicago, asking for a position doing graduate work.

She was delighted to read Dr. Geiling’s reply offering her a research assistantship and scholarship in the PhD program. There was, however, one problem. Geiling had assumed that she was a man as the acceptance letter was addressed "Dear Mr. Oldham".

Kelsey asked her professor at McGill if she should wire back and explain that Frances with an "e" is female.

"Don’t be ridiculous," he replied. "Accept the job, sign your name, put ‘Miss’ in brackets afterwards and go!" Her work for Geiling is credited with her interest in teratogens – drugs that cause congenital malformations. After completing her PhD in pharmacology and receiving an M.D. degree, she met fellow faculty member Dr. Fremont Ellis Kelsey, whom she married in 1943.

Kelsey supplemented her teaching with work as an editorial associate for the American Medical Association Journal for two years. She left the University of Chicago in 1954 and moved with her husband and two daughters to Vermillion, South Dakota, where she took a position teaching pharmacology until 1957.

In 1960, Kelsey was hired by the Food and Drug Administration in Washington, DC. One of her first assignments was to review an application for the drug thalidomide. Even though it had already been approved in over 20 European and African countries, she withheld approval for the drug and requested further studies, despite pressure from thalidomide’s manufacturer. As a junior officer, she almost single-handedly blocked the distribution of the drug and saved thousands of families from the trauma of birth defects.

As a result of her blocking American approval of thalidomide, Kelsey was awarded the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy. It is the highest honour that can be bestowed upon a civilian.

In 1995, the same year Frances Kelsey Secondary School was opened and named in her honour, a minor planet was also named in recognition of her contribution. In 2000, Kelsey was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and in 2001, she was named a Virtual Mentor for the American Medical Association.

Kelsey continued her work at the FDA where she played a key role in shaping and enforcing the 1962 Amendments. She also became responsible for directing the surveillance of drug testing at the FDA. Kelsey retired from the FDA in 2005, at age 90, after 45 years of service.

In 2005, the FDA honoured Kelsey by naming one of their annual awards after her, being the Dr. Frances O. Kelsey Drug Safety Excellence Award. In 2006 she was given the Foremother Award from the National Research Centre for Women and Families.

In September, 2010, Kelsey was celebrated again at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. when the FDA created an award to present to its employees for excellence and courage in protecting public health. The award is known as the Kelsey Award and its inaugural presentation was to Kelsey. In June 2012, Kelsey received an Honourary Doctor of Science degree from Vancouver Island University.

Today, as she looks forward to her 100th birthday, Kelsey continues to live in her house in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Her health is good and the strongest medication she has taken in the past many years is perhaps an aspirin.

Kelsey reads, does the daily crossword and keeps in touch with all that is happening in the world. Her lifelong interest in learning has not diminished. Kelsey enjoys her garden and the occasional drive in the country.

Although Kelsey has lived in the United States for many years, she is proud of her Canadian heritage.