There’s a certain book I cannot wait to read. It’s the story of a woman who stared down one of the most powerful political lobbies in America, and whose resolve and courage saved countless thousands of American families from heartbreak.
I’d like to curl up in my favorite chair with a hot cup of joe, toss the phone in a bucket of water, kick off my shoes and spend a rainy evening with my face stuck in the pages.
But there’s one little thing keeping me from reading this book: it doesn’t exist.
In 1960 Frances Oldham Kelsey was a young physician hired by the Federal Food and Drug Administration to review new drugs. One of her first assignments was to assess Thalidomide, a drug commonly being prescribed in Europe and Australia to treat pregnant women with morning sickness. Kelsey didn’t think the research results provided by the manufacturer were adequate, and refused to approve the drug for widespread distribution in the United States until more information was available.
In spite of intense lobbying from Richard Merrill, the manufacturer, Kelsey held firm. And she was vindicated when reports came in from Europe that Thalidomide had been linked to serious birth defects; some babies were born with stumps for arms and legs. Others blind or deaf. As the news spread, Kelsey was universally hailed as a hero; JFK awarded her the President’s Award for Distinguished Civil Service. She even had an asteroid named after her.
The Thalidomide incident moved Congress to pass The Kefauver-Harris Amendment in 1962, which required manufacturers to provide much more research and documentation for new drugs, and to report adverse reactions to the FDA. Kelsey was instrumental in helping to frame the language of the new law and played a key role in monitoring drug company compliance.
How is it possible that no one’s written a book about this woman? About this wife, mother of two daughters, and physician whose courage prevented an untold number of horrible birth defects? You can imagine the kind of pressure she was under, and all the horrible things said about her (and probably to her), with the huge profits at stake.
I’ve suggested to a couple of writer colleagues that they tell this story, but no go. One said I should write it myself, but I’m not a biographer. But someone needs to take this on. I’m giving the idea away for free; I just want a little love in the foreword and a signed copy. And frankly, I’m not sure how much longer I want to live on a planet where you can buy a biography of Snooki but can’t find a book about one of the greatest heroes in the history of medicine.
Dr. Kelsey retired from the FDA in 2005 at ninety, after forty-five years of service. But she’s still around, and she might be available for interviews.
So will somebody please get on this?