Frances was born 24 July 1914 into the Oldham family near Victoria, British Columbia. She graduated from high school at the age of 15 and obtained her BSc and MSc degrees from McGill U. in Montreal. She earned her PhD in Pharmacology and an MD at the University of Chicago. She applied to Chicago because she wanted to work with Eugene Geiling who was setting up a new Department of Pharmacology. He replied positively to her application, starting with "Dear Mr. Oldham . . .": the name Frances is gender-ambiguous. One of the first tasks she had as Geiling's Research Assistant was to analyse the data on a number of deaths attributed to the new anti-bacterial drug Sulphanilamide. They were able to prove that the damage was done not by the drug itself but the solvent diethylene glycol that was used to deliver it. You may suppose that this study helped give Frances the knowledge, background and backbone to face-down Big Pharma 20 years later over Thalidomide. She married another member of the U. Chicago Faculty, Ellis Kelsey, in 1943 and in 1947 they wrote The Textbook "Essentials of pharmacology. By Frances K. Oldham, F. E. Kelsey, and E. M. K. Geiling". Notice how the publisher flags up the female name but give initials to the men? A friend of mine, Geraldine Butler, got fed up with having her papers rejected or put through the wringer by dense and pedantic peer-reviewers. She found much less flak when she submitted work as G. Butler and has since made this her standard practice. Misogyny doesn't have to be conscious to effectively demoralise and disempower women in science.
Mais revenons nous a nos teratogens! The children who were dosed with thalidomide before they were born are now in their late 50s and after a life-time of amazing resilience, adaptability and courage are now running out of steam. One example is mostly armless Irish woman and Irish artist Mary Duffy, whom I met when I worked in the Dublin Food Coop on Saturday mornings 20 years ago. Mary was a regular customer and I was in awe of her as she stood on one leg and riffled through her purse with the other foot to pay for her bags of rice and lentils. She had an exhibition at the time called Vital Signs in which she took off her kit and posed in conscious echo of the Venus de Milo. Now that takes balls!
Thalidomide is in the news because Canada, country of Frances Oldham Kelsey's birth, has been moved to offer some compo for the results of the legislative and regulatory failure w.r.t. thalidomide more than 50 years ago. Canada has been the laggard in the compensation stakes, preferring to talk about the present rigorous regulatory environment than address the sins of long retired or dead administrators. Their latest offer announced by Health Minister Rona Ambrose at the end of last week amounts to $125,000 [CAD! $100K US or €90K] as a once off payment. Which seems like a very disappointing too little too late to the 95 survivors of the debacle and their families. The maths says $12million for that direct-and-immediate pay out, but the minister has also allocated a further $168million for demonstrable need. I think this paternalistic arrangement (The Man will hold the purse-strings and tell you when money needs to be spent on your disability) is particularly galling to thalidomide survivors who have shown such frightening levels of capability for nearly sixty years.
Amazingly, Frances Kelsey, born as the World tumbled into the armageddon of WWI, is still with us honoured in all sorts of ways: awards honorary degrees, an asteroid, prize funds.
Bonnets indeed off from The Blob too!