Frances Kathleen Oldham Kelsey

BMJ 2015; 351 doi: (Published 07 September 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;351:h4809
  1. Barbara Kermode-Scott, Vancouver, Canada
  1. kermodeb{at}

Instrumental in stopping thalidomide use for insomnia and nausea and vomiting in pregnancy in the US

Frances O Kelsey receives the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service from President John F Kennedy in 1962

US National Library of Medicine (Images from the History of Medicine, A018057)

Frances Kathleen Oldham Kelsey was born in and died in Canada, but she made her name in the USA. An outstanding scientist, exceptional woman, and dedicated public servant, she lived a long and remarkable life.

People around the world have honoured and thanked Frances Kelsey for the unflinching courage, integrity, and determination she showed in stopping the drug thalidomide from being approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1960. Kelsey also had a key role in shaping and later enforcing major amendments to FDA drug regulation laws.

“Frankie” Oldham received her BSc and MSc degrees in pharmacology in Canada at McGill University. She gained her PhD in pharmacology in 1938, and went on to study medicine at the University of Chicago. In Chicago, she helped establish the toxicity of elixir of sulphanilamide, and researched a cure for malaria. In 1943 she married her colleague, Fremont Ellis Kelsey (1912-66). During the 1950s …

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