Bureaucratic Savior

It’s unfortunate that sometimes you find out amazing things only after a person has died.  Rather like the old Paul Harvey lines of “The Rest of the Story”, we forget the past and the people who made the present what it is.

In today’s climate of Washington-hating, government-hating, federal employee-hating politicians, and increasingly maligned and marginalized federal workers too often viewed as overpaid, valueless office drones, no one remembers a bureaucrat who saved thousands of lives and immeasurable heartache. And who has slipped from view and history.

Thalidomide.  I’d hazard that very few people recognize the name of thalidomide, and fewer still know the story.  A drug given for nausea and morning sickness to pregnant women, it had been rushed to market with less than thorough screening trials by the pharmaceutical firms, and insufficient governmental review overseas.  The drug resulted in horrific birth defects –missing limbs, missing eyes/ears/nose, flippers instead of limbs, stunted bodies.  Over 10,000 worldwide who lived, thousands who died in utero

Frances Kelsey was the bureaucrat that kept it from happening here.  Only newly hired at the FDA, where women PhD’s were fairly uncommon, she was assigned to it because it would be an easy case.  Hardly. She started reading the data and reports and rejected the application for it to be used in the US because the data was inadequate, incomplete or misread.  Despite pressure and repeated submittals, she kept rejecting it, until finally the world-wide problems caused by the drug resulted in its being withdrawn.  Through her skills and tenacity, the US avoided the mass outbreak of heart-rending cases of deformed babies that the rest of the world endured.

She received national acclaim and award on par with the space program.  As a result of her story being told, the investigative strength of the FDA was increased, and she was assigned to the first Office of Scientific Investigations.


A woman, no less, in an era where few women worked outside the home, and where even today they are belittled and marginalized. Skilled and underappreciated….but an invaluable resource.  Just a simple bureaucrat doing her job. The same kind of bureaucrat that exists today, hidden from view.

We need more people like Dr Kelsey, and we still need them in the Federal government.  Intelligent, dedicated, persistent, independent. Now more than ever.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Ted Bosse on August 17, 2015 at 9:37 pm

    Well done.


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