A science hero of mine is…
Dr Frances Oldham Kelsey (1914-2015).
Dr Kelsey was a pharmacologist who worked for the FDA in the United States. One of the very first drug applications she reviewed was for thalidomide. We know now that this drug was the cause of serious birth defects when it was prescribed as a treatment for morning sickness.
The drug had already been approved in over 20 countries however Dr Kelsey resisted incessant pressure from the manufacturer. An English study had reported unexplained side effects on the nervous system and she insisted that the drug should be fully tested prior to approval and sale in the United States. Her strong stance for rigorous research and reporting, prevented a national tragedy, and earned her the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service by John F. Kennedy.
My favourite part of this story however is at the very beginning of Dr Kelsey’s career. She was offered a graduate position in a new pharmacology department at the University of Chicago after it was presumed Frances was a man in her application letter. She earned her PhD with this group and sparked her interest in drugs that cause birth defects, directly connected to her future work at the FDA and saving countless lives.
Dr Audra Shadforth is a postdoctoral scientist at the Queensland Eye Institute. Read her Scientists of QEI feature here.
Image source: Dr. Frances Kathleen Oldham Kelsey. History of Medicine Collection. National Library of Medicine.