The Cowichan Valley’s most famous scientist, Frances Oldham Kelsey, was appointed as a Member of the Order of Canada by Governor General David Johnston on July 1. Kelsey’s international renown arose because she blew the whistle on the drug thalidomide, but it’s not the only reason she’s received the Canadian recognition.
According to the Order of Canada listing, her award comes "for her efforts to protect public health, notably by helping to end the use of thalidomide, and for her contributions to clinical drug trial regulations."
Kelsey, who now lives in London, Ontario, is 100 years old. While the scientist has been honoured in the Valley by having a high school named after her, wider Canadian recognition has been slow in coming and businessman Kelly Black is one of those who wanted to see it happen during her lifetime.
With the help of Nanaimo-Cowichan MP Jean Crowder, he organized a petition earlier this year for that exact purpose and said Thursday that he was thrilled to see her made a Member of the Order of Canada. "I was absolutely delighted. It was phenomenal."
Black said he thought his petition could have played a part in her choice for the honour.
"Raising the profile of Dr.
Kelsey on a level outside of the Cowichan Valley certainly helped. And seeing her appointment to the Order of Canada,
I couldn’t be happier. I think the increased awareness of Dr. Kelsey’s work in the Cowichan Valley and at a national level because of the compensation provided to thalidomide victims certainly helped."
He agreed that Kelsey shone a light where it needed to be shone.
"Her recognition on a national level is about 60 years overdue but it’s better late than never. I guess I would add that I hope the Order of Canada is only the first of many other awards and nominations that are due to Dr. Kelsey in Canada."
Black began his campaign after the Department of Canadian Heritage released a survey last spring that included the question: Which Canadians have inspired you the most over the last 150 years?
From the answers, a list of Canada’s top 10 heroes was put together.
"The list was entirely male; there wasn’t a single female on that list," said Black. "I felt that was a bit ridiculous."
When he considered women of significance in Canadian history, as a student of Frances Kelsey Secondary School in Mill Bay from 1998 to 2002, the school’s namesake was the first person that came to mind.
Kelsey was born in Cobble Hill in 1914. She received a BSc and an MSc in pharmacology in Canada, then went to the U.S. where she got her PhD and M.D. degrees.
She began work with the American Food and Drug Administration in 1960.
Kelsey’s main claim to fame comes from her actions in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration where she refused to approve the use of thalidomide, which was being used in Europe and in Canada to help pregnant women with morning sickness.
Tragically, the drug caused the birth of a number of children with deformities such as short, flipper-like arms, but families in the United States were spared this horror because Kelsey stood firm against significant outside pressure. Crowder was also delighted to see Kelsey named to the Order of Canada.
"It is good news. I did write a letter in support of the nomination. I’m really pleased to see she’s been recognized while she’s still alive, "she said.
She’s 100 years old now, so the window of opportunity could be closing.
"Kelly Black had done a tremendous lot of work on getting Frances Kelsey recognized. She’s been recognized in the States for a number of years for her good work. It’s about time Canada recognized her as well."
Crowder agreed with Black that Kelsey had really slipped under the radar in her native land.
"The naming of Frances Kelsey Secondary School was a way of recognizing the work she had done. She was born in Cobble Hill. But that recognition wasn’t nearly enough. She saved thousands of children from being affected by thalidomide by the work she did," she said.