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Former USD Teacher Who Played Prominent Role at FDA Dies at 101

Image Dr. Frances Kelsey Dr. Frances Kelsey

Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey, a former University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine teacher who later prompted sweeping changes in how drugs are evaluated and approved, has died at age 101 in her native Canada.

Kelsey died Aug. 7 of natural causes at her daughter’s home in London, Ontario, Canada, said one of her two daughters, Christine Kelsey. 

Dr. Kelsey, featured in the Fall-Winter 2014 edition of South Dakota MD, operated a private medical practice in Vermillion and taught pharmacology at USD in the 1950s. Before coming to South Dakota, she received her medical degree and taught at the University of Chicago, where she met her husband, Dr. Fremont Ellis Kelsey. The FDA recruited her in 1960 to serve in Washington as a medical officer and help the newly formed government agency protect public health and safety.

“When people are writing about her, they often jump from Chicago to Washington, but in fact her South Dakota years were very important,” Christine Kelsey said, referring to pages 33-43 of her mother’s autobiography posted on the FDA website.

Just one month into the position at FDA, Kelsey was assigned to review the application for a drug known as thalidomide. Expectant mothers in Canada, Africa and Europe had been using the sedative and painkiller to ease “morning sickness” symptoms and other discomforts. Its manufacturer sought to have it approved for use in the United States, but Kelsey suspected it might harm a fetus during pregnancy and refused to approve it for sale. That prompted a high-profile fight between the pharmaceutical company and the FDA. Kelsey’s suspicions were eventually confirmed when researchers discovered birth defects among children whose mothers had used it.

Congress responded by passing landmark legislation in 1962 to strengthen drug laws and public protections, and President John F. Kennedy awarded Kelsey the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service. The FDA now honors one of its employees every year with the Dr. Frances O. Kelsey Drug Safety Excellence Award.

USD also has a scholarship fund in honor of the Kelseys that rewards second-year medical students who have demonstrated an excellence in pharmacology.


USD's Sanford School of Medicine is nationally known for excellence. With its award-winning curriculum, the school prepares medical students to practice in all fields of medicine and is particularly recognized and ranked for its reputation in family medicine and rural medicine. In addition to the M.D., it offers graduate degrees in basic biomedical science, sustains a vibrant and forward-looking research agenda, and is home to the interdisciplinary Center for Brain and Behavioral Research.


Founded in 1862 and the first university in the Dakotas, the University of South Dakota is the only public liberal arts university in the state, with 202 undergraduate and 84 graduate programs in the College of Arts & Sciences, School of Education, Knudson School of Law, Sanford School of Medicine, School of Health Sciences, Beacom School of Business and College of Fine Arts. With an enrollment of nearly 10,000 students and more than 400 faculty, USD has a 16:1 student/faculty ratio, and it ranks among the best in academics and affordability. USD’s 18 athletic programs compete at the NCAA Division I level.

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Hanna DeLange
USD News