The “Heroine of FDA:” Gender and Expertise in the Thalidomide Tragedy That Wasn’t

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Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies


Professor Sarah Milov
Department of History, University of Virginia
The “Heroine of FDA:” Gender and Expertise in the Thalidomide Tragedy That Wasn’t 
Thursday, March 26, 2020
Room: TBA

In the 1950s, thousands of babies in West Germany, Canada, and the United Kingdom were born with phocomelia, or “seal limb.” This serious birth defect, which led to death before the first birthday for 40% of afflicted children, resulted from their mothers’ use of thalidomide, a sedative prescribed for morning sickness, during pregnancy. The drug was never marketed in the United States, largely due to the “skepticism and stubbornness” of Frances Kelsey, the FDA medical officer assigned to review the drug’s marketing authorization. This lecture asks what role Frances Kelsey’s gender played in thalidomide’s regulation. Drawing upon Kelsey’s personal papers, contemporary media accounts, and legal records, it explores the interaction between gender, bureaucracy, work and expertise. It also represents an early chapter in Professor Milov’s new project on gender and whistleblowing in the twentieth century United States.

The Centre hosts exceptional international scholars each year for public talks. The series self-consciously curates the cutting edge of diaspora and transnational studies, with our audiences often including a mix of undergraduates, graduate students, alumni, faculty from across the University, and members of the public. Talks are generally 45 minutes long with additional time for questions and answers.

This event is free and open to all. Registration is not required. For further information, contact the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies at 416 946 8464.