Locals fight to honour Cowichan-born hero who blocked thalidomide

The campaign is on to have one of Cowichan’s most heroic former residents recognized nationally.

Kelly Black, with the assistance of Nanaimo-Cowichan MP Jean Crowder, has started a push to have Dr. Frances Kelsey honoured as a person of national historic significance.

Black began his campaign after the Department of Canadian Heritage released a survey in the 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.

"In her first month at the FDA, she was pressured to approve the release of a sleeping pill for pregnant women call thalidomide," Crowder said. "She had seen data that women who used the drug repeatedly experienced dangerous side effects and in 1961 when British reports of severe birth defects in children started, that was the information Dr. Kelsey needed to block approval of the drug in the U.S., which eventually led to its ban around the world."

"She was the one who really blew the whistle on thalidomide and its effects," she said. "Without her intervention, I can’t imagine how many more people would have been impacted by it."

It was a very brave thing for Kelsey to do, said Black.

"The fact that Dr. Kelsey stood up to the pressure of the pharmaceutical companies to approve this drug, thalidomide, was a very powerful thing for her to do, particularly as an upcoming person working at the federal drug administration, and also as a woman," he said.

Kelsey has been extensively honoured in the U.S., receiving the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service in 1962, the highest honour that can be bestowed upon a civilian, and in 1995 she had a minor planet named after her. In 2000 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and in 2001 she was named a Virtual Mentor for the American Medical Association.

Given her achievements, Kelsey should be ripe for recognition as a person of national historic significance in Canada.

There’s just one catch – she’s still alive.

Guidelines of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada state that a person must be dead for 25 years before being recognized.

Black calls the rule archaic, and Crowder agreed.

"Why wouldn’t we actually honour people while they’re still here?" Crowder questioned. "I just don’t understand that rule."

It’s been 53 years since Kelsey, now 100, did the work for which she would be recognized, Crowder said, which would be in keeping with the historical nature of the award.

"Why not now?" she asked. To support the effort to have Kelsey recognized by the federal government, contact the Historic Sites and Monuments Board and the Ministry of Environment. A draft of a letter is available at https://canstud.wordpress. com/2014/06/18/frances-kelseyunsung-canadian-hero/, and scroll down to "Application: HSMBC_ FrancesKelsey_Application" There’s also a petition you can download at www.jeancrowder.ca

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