Bureaucracy Can Save Lives – The Legacy of Dr. Frances Kelsey

By Robert Field

What adjective would most people associate with the word “bureaucrat”? For many, it would be “inefficient,” “inept,” or “incompetent.” But another that is just as descriptive is “lifesaving.”

Dr. Frances Kelsey, who died this month at the age of 101, was celebrated as an American hero for her work as a medical officer at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). She saved thousands of lives and prevented untold suffering by using techniques that earn bureaucrats a bad name, delay and obstruction, to keep the drug thalidomide from reaching the market in the United States in 1961.

Thalidomide is a sedative that had been approved for sale in Europe four years earlier and was prescribed for morning sickness during pregnancy. The American manufacturer, Richardson-Merrell, saw a large potential market in the United States. However, Dr. Kelsey, who was assigned to review its application for marketing approval, was troubled by questionable safety data. The law in effect in 1961 required that she issue a decision within 60 days, but she was able to buy more time by asking for additional information.

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