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History (Education)


The very real story of how one woman prevented a national tragedy by doing her job

Frances Oldham Kelsey believed thorough research saves lives. She was so right.

Image by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey and President John F. Kennedy.

Seventh Generation

Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey had only been with the Food and Drug Administration for about a month when she was tasked with reviewing a drug named thalidomide for distribution in America.

Marketed as a sedative for pregnant women, thalidomide was already available in Canada, Germany, and several African countries.

It could have been a very simple approval. But for Kelsey, something didn't sit right. There were no tests showing thalidomide was safe for human use, particularly during pregnancy.

thalidomide, wonder drug, public health

Kelsey in her office at the FDA in 1960.

Image by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

When Chemie Grünenthal released thalidomide in West Germany years earlier, they called it a "wonder drug" for pregnant women. They promised it would treat anxiety, insomnia, tension, and morning sickness and help pregnant women sleep.

What they didn't advertise were its side effects.

Because it crosses the placental barrier between fetus and mother, thalidomide causes devastating — often fatal — physical defects. During the five years it was on the market, an estimated 10,000 babies globally were born with thalidomide-caused defects. Only about 60% lived past their first birthday.

In 1961, the health effects of thalidomide weren't well-known. Only a few studies in the U.K. and Germany were starting to connect the dots between babies born with physical defects and the medication their mothers had taken while pregnant.

At the outset, that wasn't what concerned Kelsey. She'd looked at the testimonials in the submission and found them "too glowing for the support in the way of clinical back up." She pressed the American manufacturer, Cincinnati's William S. Merrell Company, to share research on how their drug affected human patients. They refused. Instead, they complained to her superiors for holding up the approval. Still, she refused to back down.

drugs, medication, medicine

A sample pack of thalidomide.

Image by Stephen C. Dickson/Wikimedia Commons.

A sample pack of thalidomide sent to doctors in the U.K. While more than 10,000 babies worldwide were born with thalidomide-related birth defects, FDA historian John Swann credits Dr. Kelsey with limiting the number of American babies affected to just 17.

Over the next year, the manufacturer would resubmit its application to sell thalidomide six times. Each time, Kelsey asked for more research. Each time, they refused.

By 1961, thousands of mothers were giving birth to babies with shocking and heartbreaking birth defects. Taking thalidomide early in their pregnancy was the one thing connecting them. The drug was quickly pulled from shelves, vanishing mostly by 1962.

Through dogged persistence, Kelsey and her team had prevented a national tragedy.

government, FDA, bureaucracy, community

Kelsey joins President John F. Kennedy at the signing of a new bill expanding the authority of the FDA in 1962.

Image by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy honored Kelsey with the Federal Civilian Service Medal. He thanked her for her exceptional judgment and for preventing a major tragedy of birth deformities in the United States:

“I know that we are all most indebted to Dr. Kelsey. The relationship and the hopes that all of us have for our children, I think, indicate to Dr. Kelsey, I am sure, how important her work is and those who labor with her to protect our families. So, Doctor, I know you know how much the country appreciates what you have done."

But, she wasn't done yet. Later that year, the FDA approved new, tougher regulations for companies seeking drug approval, inspired in large part by Kelsey's work on thalidomide.

Reached via email, FDA historian John Swann said this about Kelsey's legacy: "[Her] actions also made abundantly clear to the nation the important public health role that drug regulation and FDA itself play in public health. The revelation of the global experience with that drug and America's close call indeed provided impetus to secure passage of a comprehensive drug regulation bill that had been more or less floundering during the time FDA was considering the application."

Kelsey continued to work for the FDA until 2005. She died in 2015, aged 101, just days after receiving the Order of Canada for her work on thalidomide.

Bureaucratic approval work is rarely thrilling and not often celebrated. That's a shame because it's so critical.

People like Kelsey, who place public health and safety above all else — including their career — deserve every ounce of our collective respect and admiration.

This story originally appeared on 05.20.16


An 8-yr-old Chinese American girl helped desegregate schools 70 years before Brown v. Board

Mamie Tape and her parents fought the school district all the way to the California Supreme Court in 1885 and won, but that wasn't the end of the battle.

The Tape family fought for their daughter, Mamie, to be enrolled at an all-white school in San Francisco.

In 2024, the idea of racially segregated schools sounds ridiculous, but it was the standard practice for most of American history. White Americans often refused to accept their children being educated alongside children of other races and ethnicities, and lawsuits over the matter ultimately rose all the way to the Supreme Court, culminating in the famous Brown vs. Board of Educationruling.

That landmark 1954 case marked the end of legal school segregation, as the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that segregating students by race was unconstitutional, a violation of the 14th amendment.

But another segregation case reached the California Supreme Court 70 years prior, and it revolved around an 8-year-old Chinese American student named Mamie Tape.

According to History.com, Mamie's parents, Joseph and Mary Tape, had each come to the U.S. as children and had fully integrated into American life and culture. They took English names, wore Westernized clothing and lived by standard American customs. They were married in a Christian ceremony and named their three children Mamie, Emily and Frank. Joseph operated a delivery service and was a successful, well-respected businessman among both Chinese and white communities in San Francisco.

However, despite their extreme assimilation, when they tried to enroll their 8-year-old daughter in the all-white Spring Valley Primary School in 1884, Principal Jennie Hurley flat out refused to admit her.

Unsurprisingly, the school-board had a policy against admitting Chinese children. The Chinese Exclusion Act, which placed a 10-year ban on Chinese workers immigrating to the U.S., had just been passed in 1882 and anti-Chinese prejudice was commonplace. But that did not deter the Tapes from their mission to get the best education for their child.

California had passed a law in 1880 that entitled all children in the state to partake in public education. However, school boards ignored the ruling and social custom kept the schools segregated. Chinese children attended the mission-run schools in Chinatown, while white children attended their local neighborhood schools.

The Tapes wanted Mamie to attend her neighborhood school. So they fought the administration's refusal to admit their daughter by filing a lawsuit on her behalf against Hurley and the San Francisco Board of Education. The Tapes' lawyer, William Gibson, argued that not only did Hurley barring Mamie from the school violate California's existing law, but it also violated the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution—the basic argument that would eventually ban segregation nationwide in the Brown v. Board verdict.

Joseph and Mary Tate and their three children

The Tape Family

Public Domain

Tape vs. Hurley never went to the highest federal court, however, because both the Superior Court and the California Supreme Court agreed with Gibson's interpretation of the Constitution. On January 9, 1885, Superior Court Judge McGuire wrote in the court's decision, “To deny a child, born of Chinese parents in this State, entrance to the public schools would be a violation of the law of the State and the Constitution of the United States.”

Despite their success in court, that unfortunately wasn't the end of the Tapes' struggles to get Mamie into the Spring Valley school. The court's ruling did not address the "separate but equal" doctrine, which was not yet legally binding (that would come with Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896) but was the prevailing justification for segregation. The "separate but equal" idea held that segregation was okay as long as it affected all races equally. For instance, white people and non-white people could have separate drinking fountains, as long as everyone had access to a drinking fountain.

What that meant in the Tapes' case was that the San Francisco school board quickly and successfully pushed to pass a new state law authorizing the creation of separate public schools for “children of Chinese and Mongolian descent.” The new Chinese school wasn't ready yet, so the Tape still tried to enroll Mamie into the white school, but Hurley still denied her, citing there being too many students already and claiming that Mamie didn't have the required vaccinations.

Having already exhausted legal avenues, Mary Tape published a scathing letter in the Daily Alta California newspaper.

“Dear sirs,” she wrote. “Will you please to tell me! Is it a disgrace to be born a Chinese? Didn’t God make us all!!!” She railed against her daughter's treatment, saying she was more American than many people reading it. No matter how Chinese people live and dress, they are hated simply for being Chinese, she pointed out. "There is not any right or justice for them," she wrote.”

Indeed, Mamie and the Tapes didn't see justice in their case, despite winning their legal case in court. But Tape vs. Hurley has gone down in history as a landmark case in the fight for ending segregation, one stepping stone toward true equality under the law.

America's first female tycoon so frugal she's in record book

There is nothing wrong with pinching a few pennies here and there. Most people on a budget or fixed income become really good at learning where they can save money but frugality isn't something you consider when thinking of millionaires.

Yacht trips in the Mediterranean, swanky dinners on plates that cost more than people's rent payments and extravagant shopping sprees are all things that come to mind when thinking of the uber-rich. Very seldomly would anyone equate frugality to extreme wealth, but that's likely because they didn't know about Hetty Green.

Henrietta ("Hetty") Howland Robinson was born in 1834 to a wealthy Quaker family in New Bedford, Massachusetts where she was raised mostly by her grandparents. Her grandfather and father amassed their wealth through whaling, and according to the Forgotten Newsmakers, she was an expert on stocks and bonds by age 15.

Green's expertise didn't come by through her genuine interest at first. Due to her grandfather's poor eyesight, he had the young girl read the financial news to him daily. Recently the heiress has come to modern public consciousness after her story was shared on different social media platforms highlighting her extreme money saving techniques.

The Quaker woman never knew poverty as she was born into millionaire status in the 1800s, but you wouldn't know that from her spending habits. In the social media post it mentions that she never purchased a new pair of underwear after learning to mend them at the age of 16. Until her death, Green was wearing the same pairs underwear she had worn since her teen years.

In another truly mystifying supposed factoid the wealthy woman shopped around for the best price to have her son's broken leg set. Her delay in medical treatment for her son resulted in him having to get his leg amputated. Though, this part of the story has been disputed by Roberta Sawyer who spent her childhood on the Green's estate tells South Coast Today, "Hetty's own daughter, Sylvia Wilkes, told a completely different story. The truth is that Hetty Green went around with her son for three days trying to find a doctor who felt he could save Ned's leg instead of amputating it."

Hetty Green Blazing Trailswww.nps.gov

According to Wilkes much of the information on Green seems to be sourced from the book "The Day They Shook the Plum Tree," which she calls "mistruths" in 2011. But the bulk of the claims about her frugal nature seem to be true according to books, multiple articles, and a 1905 character study written about the woman. Green learned to rely on left overs while in boarding school, wore the same black dress for years and dressed her children in secondhand clothes.

The woman's spending habits are what landed her in the Guinness Book for being the "world's greatest miser." Looking outside of her tight fisted nature, she was actually a powerhouse of an individual. She not only had her own bank account before women were legally allowed to open their own accounts, she was respected in the financial world by giants on Wall Street.

Green was a woman in a man's world who not only inherited wealth but amassed her own wealth through her strict budgeting and her ability to navigate stocks. Maybe should be remembered as a financial pioneer ahead of her time instead of her ability to hold on to a dollar. "Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America's First Female Tycoon" is attempting to do just that, highlighting the woman's business sense not just her eccentric nature.

File:Hetty Green and Terrier.jpg - Wikimedia Commonscommons.wikimedia.org

Green was so savvy with her investments that the millionaire had to bail out investors on Wall Street. She foresaw the "Knickerbocker crisis" of 1907 and when John Pierpont Morgan (yeah, that J.P. Morgan) called the greatest minds in finance to help him figure out how to save the economy, Green was the only woman at the table.

She bailed out The New York Central Railroad with a loan according to Yahoo Finance, which cited quotes from the 1916 Literary Digest. Green explains in one of the quotes that she knew the chaos was coming and did her part to help others without taking advantage of the situation. So much for the stingy miser label.

“When the crash came I had money, and I was one of the very few who really had it. The others had their ‘securities’ and their ‘values.’ I had the cash and they had to come to me,” she said.

Yahoo Finance highlights that she loaned the New York City government $1.1 million at the height of the 1907 panic and just months before she loaned them $4.5 million.

“Those to whom I loaned money got it at 6%. I might just as easily have secured 40%,” she explained. “Never in my life—no matter what has been said against me—have I practiced usury, and no one knows it better than the wealthy men who have had business dealings with me.”

There you have it, Hetty Green, The World's Greatest Miser, investment tycoon, business woman and multimillionaire who turns out to not be as stingy as people made her out to be.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

Van Gogh never got to enjoy his own historic success as an artist (even though we've been able to imagine what that moment might have looked like). But it turns out that those of us who have appreciated his work have been missing out on some critical details for more than 100 years.

I'm not easily impressed, OK?

I know Van Gogh was a genius. If the point of this were "Van Gogh was a mad genius," I would not be sharing this with you.

But I found this and I thought, "Oh, what a vaguely interesting thing." And then I got to the part about the Hubble Space Telescope, and, let me tell you: Mind. Blown.

We've got the set up here, but you have to watch the video for the full effect. It's all the way at the bottom.

Get this: Van Gogh was a pretty cool artist (duh), but as it turns out...

painting, science, psychotic

What’s the truth behind when you take off an ear?


...he was also A SCIENTIST!*

*Pretty much.

Here's the story.

While Van Gogh was in an asylum in France, after he mutilated his ear during a psychotic episode*...

(*Or, and I'd like to thank the entire Internet for pointing this out, there's a theory that his friend Paul Gauguin actually cut off his ear, in a drunken sword fight, in the dark. The more you know!)

science, premonition, predictions

Animated a thinking one-eared Van Gogh.

All Van Gogh GIFs via TED-Ed.

...he was able to capture one of science's most elusive concepts:


research, studied, proof, genius

Animated "Starry Night."


turbulence, fluid dynamics, energy cascade

Turbulence expressed through art.


Although it's hard to understand with math (like, REALLY HARD), it turns out that art makes it easy to depict how it LOOKS.

So what is turbulence?

Turbulence, or turbulent flow, is a concept of fluid dynamics where fluid movements are "self-similar" when there's an energy cascade — so basically, big eddies make smaller eddies, and those make even smaller ones ... and so on and so forth.

It looks like this:

figures, explanation, education, community

Pictures explain science.


See? It's easier to look at pictures to understand it.

Thing is, scientists are pretty much *just* starting to figure this stuff out.

reference, research, wisdom

Animation of referencing art to science.


Then you've got Van Gogh, 100 years earlier, in his asylum, with a mutilated ear, who totally nailed it!

illumination, luminance, pulsing

Science studying Van Gogh.


The folks who noticed Van Gogh's ability to capture turbulence checked to see whether other artists did the same. Most impressionists achieved " luminance" with their art (which is the sort-of *pulsing* you see when you look at their paintings that really shows what light looks like).

But did other artists depict turbulence the way Van Gogh did?


The Scream, historical, popular, famous

Animated “The Scream."


Not even "The Scream" could hold a candle to Van Gogh!

technology, star turbulence, sky, astronomy

Capturing concepts of nature.


Even in his darkest time, Van Gogh was able to capture — eerily accurately — one of nature's most complex and confusing concepts ... 100 years before scientists had the technology to observe actual star turbulence and realize its similarity to fluid turbulence mathematics as well as Van Gogh's swirling sky. Cool, huh?

Watch the video below to learn even more:

This article originally appeared on 11.14.14