School’s namesake celebrates a century of living

Frances Kelsey photo is part of a tribute to the centenarian. - Andrew Leong
Frances Kelsey photo is part of a tribute to the centenarian.
— image credit: Andrew Leong

July 24 marked a significant milestone for Frances Kelsey Secondary School.

The school’s namesake marks her first century.

Frances Kathleen Oldham Kelsey 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.

Kelsey was a scientist whose biggest claim to fame was blocking distribution of the drug thalidomide in the United States while working for that country’s Food and Drug Administration.

Despite intense pressure from lobbyists, and the fact the drug was approved for use as a tranquilizer and painkiller for pregnant women, Kelsey stood her ground on the need for more testing.

That testing eventually determined the drug caused serious birth defects and she was honoured by president John F. Kennedy for her efforts.

Al MacLeod, the school’s first principal, spoke of the special bond with its namesake.

“I was privileged to spend time with Dr. Kelsey during each of her three visits,” he said.

“She is truly a remarkable person. She is unassuming and was like a young child at Christmas in her enthusiasm and wonderment for what she saw students accomplishing.

“Of immense pride for Dr. Kelsey is to have a school, a place of learning for young people, named after her.”

It was a different world when Kelsey received her B.Sc. and a M.Sc. in pharmacology at Montreal’s McGill University.

At the suggestion of one of her professors, she wrote to E.M.K. Geiling, a noted researcher who was starting a new pharmacology department at the University of Chicago, asking for a position doing graduate work.

She was delighted to read Geiling’s reply offering her a research assistant position and scholarship in the PhD program.

There was, however, one problem. Geiling had assumed Kelsey was a man. The acceptance letter was addressed “Dear Mr. Oldham.”

Kelsey asked her professor at McGill if she should wire back and explain 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 sparking her interest in teratogens — the drugs that cause congenital malformations.

After completing her PhD in pharmacology and receiving an MD degree, she met fellow faculty member Fremont Ellis Kelsey, whom she married in 1943.

Dr. 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 FDA in Washington, D.C., one of just 11 people working to review drug safety.

The thalidomide story directly led to policies of strict testing of new drugs before they could be approved for public distribution.

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 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.

In 2005, the FDA honoured  Kelsey by naming one of its annual awards after her. In 2006, she was given the Foremother Award from the National Research Center for Women & 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 her.

In June 2012, Kelsey received an Honorary 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. She 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 and is hopeful she will receive recognition of the centenary from Queen Elizabeth II.

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