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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.

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

This story originally appeared on 05.20.16


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.


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.

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. Image by Stephen C. Dickson/Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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

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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Yamiche Alcindor/Twitter, U.S. Department of State

It takes a lot to push a career diplomat to quit their job. A diplomat's specialty, after all, is diplomacy—managing relationships between people and governments, usually with negotiation and compromise.

So when the U.S. special envoy to Haiti, whose "diplomatic experience and demonstrated interagency leadership have been honed directing several of the United States government's largest overseas programs in some of the world's most challenging, high-threat environments," decides to resign effective immediately, it means something.

Daniel Foote, who was appointed special envoy to Haiti in July of this year, explained his decision to quit in a strongly-worded letter to Secretary of State Blinken. His resignation comes in the wake of a wave of Haitian migrants arriving at the southern U.S. border and widespread reports of harsh treatment and deportations.

"I will not be associated with the United States inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands of Haitian refugees and illegal immigrants to Haiti, a country where American officials are confined to secure compounds because of the danger posed by armed gangs in control of daily life," he wrote. "Our policy approach to Haiti remains deeply flawed, and my recommendations have been ignored and dismissed, when not edited to project a narrative different from my own."

Foote went on to describe the dire conditions in Haiti:

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