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Guest Commentary

American heroes: Cause for joy and lament

8/19/2015

The recent death of an American hero, Dr. Frances Kelsey, like the deaths of most real heroes, is cause for both joy and lament. Joy because such heroes reflect our society at its best; lament because of the contrast between their heroics and the shortcomings of others that too often haunt us.

Dr. Kelsey was one of those folks routinely damned by those who want to be the next U.S. president. She was a bureaucrat — you know, a government employee who gets in the way of the marketplace and free enterprise and creating jobs.

Sure enough, Dr. Kelsey cost drug manufacturer Richardson-Merrell millions of dollars and cost the U.S. countless jobs. In the early 1960s she had questions about a drug introduced in Germany in 1957 and then available in 46 nations around the world; that was Merrell’s Kevadon, whose generic name was thalidomide.

Despite pressure from the pharmaceutical industry and free-market ideologues, she blocked thalidomide from a hasty entrance into the U.S. market. After griping about obstructionist government regulators, in 1962 Merrell withdrew its application for marketing Kevadon in the U.S. Evidence of the birth defects it caused was overwhelming — not in the way of tests in government labs, but in the way of children born with flipper-like limbs and other birth defects. It’s estimated that at least 10,000 babies, whose mothers had taken the drug, were born with deformities. Most of the estimated 100,000 women who took the drug to combat morning sickness suffered miscarriages. Estimates are that 5,000 to 6,000 thalidomide victims survive today. (In recent years, thalidomide has been found to be helpful in treating some forms of cancer and leprosy.)

Dr. Kelsey was new to her drug-approval post in the Food and Drug Administration in 1960 when assigned to review and expected by many to routinely approve thalidomide. Fortunately, however, for some 30 years she had already been a researcher dealing with related drugs and their effects. (She got her first research job — before government regulators would introduce equal employment opportunities for women — because the fellow who hired her assumed Frances was a man.)

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At the FDA, she saw some red flags about thalidomide as did some of her colleagues. Her experience and her courage served us well — even though the likes of her are fodder for politicians who draw laughs when they amuse their supporters with the line “I’m from the government; I’m here to help you.”

Dr. Kelsey worked in government into her 90s and died at 101, Aug. 7. Some commentaries about her noted that when she was blocking thalidomide, another person, a former federal employee in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was about to publish her book, Silent Spring, which led to the banning of DDT. She, of course, was Rachel Carson, who died in 1962 at 57.

So, the work of Kelsey and Carson merits praise — Kelsey-and-Carson or Carson-and-Kelsey has a nice ring to it as a name for a public-interest firm, doesn’t it? But KC Inc. is cause for lament, too. After all, they were scientists, the kind of people whose work is scorned nowadays by deniers of climate change, foes of vaccination, opponents of the teaching of evolution or those, like Iowa’s governor and the Farm Bureau, who ignore calls for sound public policy to combat pollution of Iowa waterways.

Curious choice, isn’t it? Rely on government regulators, or let private interests and political game playing drive public policy?

Sounds clear cut. But often enough the marketplace and sound public policy find something in common. When it comes to climate change, for example, the marketplace may recognize that scoffing at scientific findings is simply bad business. At least we can hope such awareness will ultimately drive government decision making.

When push comes to shove, however, as it does with water pollution in Iowa, folks like Carson and Kelsey are cause for joy, and the governor and Farm Bureau cause for lament.  (Even if my “American” hero Dr. Kelsey was born in Canada and got dual citizenship in 1950 so she could continue to practice medicine here!) CV

 

Herb Strentz is a retired administrator and professor in the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writes occasional columns for Cityview.

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