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What Good Is Government — And the Power of One

Dr Frances Kelsey - The White House We all know about Candy Lightner who started Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Right? She started the organization after losing a child in a traffic collision caused by a drunk driver. With the help of others, she changed our entire nation’s attitude about drinking and driving. Enlisting those others who helped, she demonstrated the power of one. One person can change the world — or at least the world she (or he) lives in. Here’s the story of another, lifted heavily from the New York Times. This story shows both the power of one and how government can be good.

Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey used to the commissioner at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Fifty years ago, she was given the responsibility for evaluating an application from a drug company that would allow them to sell a sedative called Kevadon. Kevadon? What’s that? So what? Yeah, right. Those of us who are of a certain age are likely to remember Kevadon by its generic name, thalidomide. What a disaster that one was! It was widely used in Europe at the time to mitigate the symptoms of morning sickness during pregnancy. Remember the minor side-effects? Babies born to mothers who had taken thalidomide had all manner and sorts of physical deformities — hands attached to shoulders but without arms and worse, as if you could imagine that. It was almost as if those innocent babies would be born with eyes in their shoulder blades.

Dr. Kelsey’s review of the thalidomide application — apart from helping to minimize the effect of thalidomide in the US, which it did — led to legislation giving the FDA the authority to require drug makers to show scientifically that their drugs are safe and effective. Nifty concept, yes? So nowadays, the standards, i.e. rules and regulations, she helped write and institute are taken for granted and not up for debate.

The FDA is now naming a new annual employee award for Dr. Kelsey which is more than a little nice because in recent years, drug approval was considered in terms of speed more than efficacy. Had the marketplace determined the viability of thalidomide, how many families would have suffered as a consequence of how many babies born freakishly disfigured? One person, with help, and government gone good did what was right. Government (at all levels) often screws up. And more than occasionally gets it right.

The photo is of Dr. Kelsey receiving the Distinguished Civilian Service Medal from President Kennedy in recognition of her work on thalidomide. It came from the White House.