How One Doctor Single-Handedly Saved Countless Babies from Birth Defects

President John F. Kennedy gave Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey the nation's highest federal civilian service award in 1962, saying she had "prevented a major tragedy of birth deformities."

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In July 1956, a new drug hit the European market for the first time. The drug was called thalidomide – a sedative that was considered so safe it was available without a prescription.

Sedatives were in high demand in post-war Europe – but barbiturates, the most widely-used sedative at the time, caused overdoses and death when consumers took more than the recommended amount. Thalidomide, on the other hand, didn't appear to cause any side effects at all: Chemie Grünenthal, thalidomide's manufacturer, dosed laboratory rodents with over 600 times the normal dosage during clinical testing and had observed no evidence of toxicity.

The drug therefore was considered universally safe, and Grünenthal supplied thousands of doctors with samples to give to their patients. Doctors were encouraged to recommend thalidomide to their pregnant patients specifically because it was so safe, in order to relieve the nausea and insomnia associated with the first trimester of pregnancy.

By 1960, Thalidomide was being sold in countries throughout the world, and the United States was expected to soon follow suit. Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey, a pharmacologist and physician, was hired by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in September of that year to review and approve drugs for the administration. Immediately, Kelsey was tasked with approving thalidomide for commercial use in the United States under the name Kevadon. Kelsey's approval was supposed to be a formality, since the drug was so widely used in other countries.

But Kelsey did something that few people expected – she paused. Rather than approving the drug offhand as she was expected to do, Kelsey asked the manufacturer – William S. Merrell Co., who was manufacturing thalidomide under license from Chemie Grünenthal – to supply her with more safety data, noting that Merrell's application for approval relied mostly on anecdotal testimony. Kelsey – along with her husband who worked as a pharmacologist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) — was highly suspicious of a drug that had no lethal dose and no side effects. "It was just too positive," Kelsey said later. "This couldn't be the perfect drug with no risk."

At the same time, rumors were starting to swirl across Europe that thalidomide was not as safe as everyone had initially thought: Physicians were starting to notice an "unusual increase" in the birth of severely deformed babies, and they were beginning to suspect thalidomide as the cause. The babies, whose mothers had all taken thalidomide during pregnancy, were born with conditions like deafness, blindness, congenital heart problems, and even phocomelia, a malformation of the arms and legs. Doctors and midwives were also starting to notice a sharp rise in miscarriages and stillbirths among their patients as well.

Kelsey's skepticism was rewarded in November 1961 when thalidomide was yanked abruptly off the market, following a growing outcry that it was responsible for hundreds of stillbirths and deformities.

Kelsey had heard none of these rumors, but she did know from her post-doctoral research that adults could metabolize drugs differently than fetuses – in other words, a drug that was perfectly safe for adults could be detrimental to a patient's unborn child. Noting that thalidomide could cross the placental barrier, she asked for safety data, such as clinical trials, that showed specifically the drug was non-toxic for fetuses. Merrell supplied Kelsey with anecdotal data – in other words, accounts from patients who attested to the fact that they took thalidomide with no adverse effects – but she rejected it, needing stronger data: clinical studies with pregnant women included.

The drug company was annoyed at what they considered Kelsey's needless bureaucracy. After all, Germans were consuming around 1 million doses of thalidomide every day in 1960, with lots of anecdotal evidence that it was safe, even among pregnant women. As the holidays approached – the most lucrative time of year for sedative sales – Merrell executives started hounding Kelsey to approve thalidomide, even phoning her superior and paying her visits at work. But Kelsey was unmovable. Kelsey's skepticism was solidified in December 1960, when she read a letter published in the British Medical Journal from a physician. In the letter, the author warned that his long-term thalidomide patients were starting to report pain in their arms and legs.

"The burden of proof that the drug is safe … lies with the applicant," Kelsey wrote in a letter to Merrell executive Joseph F. Murray in May of 1961. Despite increasing pressure, Kelsey held fast to her insistence that more safety data – particularly for fetuses – was needed.

Kelsey's skepticism was rewarded in November 1961 when Chemie Grünenthal yanked thalidomide off the market overseas, following a growing outcry that it was responsible for hundreds of stillbirths and deformities. In early 1962, Merrell conceded that the drug's safety was unproven in fetuses and formally withdrew its application at the FDA.

Thanks to Kelsey, the United States was spared the effects of thalidomide – although countries like Europe and Canada were not so lucky. Thalidomide remained in people's homes under different names long after it was pulled from the market, and so women unfortunately continued to take thalidomide during their pregnancies, unaware of its effects. All told, thalidomide is thought to have caused around 10,000 birth defects and anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000 miscarriages. Many so-called "thalidomide babies" are now adults living with disabilities.

Niko von Glasow, born in 1960, is a German film director and producer who was born disabled due to the side effects of thalidomide.

Wikimedia Commons

Just two years after joining the FDA, Kelsey was presented with the President's Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service and was appointed as the head of the Investigational Drug Branch at the FDA. Not only did Kelsey save the U.S. public from the horrific effects of thalidomide, but she forever changed the way drugs were developed and approved for use in the United States: Drugs now need to not only be proven safe and effective, but adverse drug reactions need to be reported to the FDA and informed consent must be obtained by all participants before they volunteer for clinical trials. Today, the United States is safer because of Frances Kelsey's bravery.

Sarah Watts

Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.

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This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.

We invited Nobel Prize, National Medal of Science, and Breakthrough Prize Laureates working in America to offer advice to the next President on how to prioritize science and medicine in the next four years. Almost universally, these 28 letters underscore the importance of government support for basic or fundamental research to fuel long-term solutions to challenges like infectious diseases, climate change, and environmental preservation.

Many of these scientists are immigrants to the United States and emphasize how they moved to this country for its educational and scientific opportunities, which recently have been threatened by changes in visa policies for students and researchers from overseas. Many respondents emphasize the importance of training opportunities for scientists from diverse backgrounds to ensure that America can continue to have one of the strongest, most creative scientific workforces in the world.

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Aaron F. Mertz
Aaron F. Mertz, Ph.D., is a biophysicist, science advocate, and the founding Director of the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, launched in 2019 to help foster a diverse scientific workforce whose contributions extend beyond the laboratory and to generate greater public appreciation for science as a vital tool to address global challenges. He completed postdoctoral training in cell biology at Rockefeller University, a doctorate in physics at Yale University, a master’s degree in the history of science at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and a bachelor’s degree in physics at Washington University in St. Louis.

On left, people excitedly line up for Salk's polio vaccine in 1957; on right, Joe Biden gets one of the COVID vaccines on December 21, 2020.

Wikimedia Commons and Biden's Twitter

On the morning of April 12, 1955, newsrooms across the United States inked headlines onto newsprint: the Salk Polio vaccine was "safe, effective, and potent." This was long-awaited news. Americans had limped through decades of fear, unaware of what caused polio or how to cure it, faced with the disease's terrifying, visible power to paralyze and kill, particularly children.

The announcement of the polio vaccine was celebrated with noisy jubilation: church bells rang, factory whistles sounded, people wept in the streets. Within weeks, mass inoculation began as the nation put its faith in a vaccine that would end polio.

Today, most of us are blissfully ignorant of child polio deaths, making it easier to believe that we have not personally benefited from the development of vaccines. According to Dr. Steven Pinker, cognitive psychologist and author of the bestselling book Enlightenment Now, we've become blasé to the gifts of science. "The default expectation is not that disease is part of life and science is a godsend, but that health is the default, and any disease is some outrage," he says.

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