Thursday, 14 November 2019

Frankie: The Woman Who Saved Millions from Thalidomide by James Essinger & Sandra Koutzenko

Frankie: The Woman Who Saved Millions from Thalidomide by James Essinger and Sandra Koutzenko
Published by The History Press on the 3rd June 2019.

One of my 2019 New Release Challenge reads

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Thalidomide: patented in Germany as a non-toxic cure-all for sleeplessness and morning sickness. A wonder drug with no side-effects.
We know differently now.

Today, thalidomide is a byword for tragedy and drug reform – a sign of what happens when things aren’t done ‘the right way’. But when it was released in the 1950s, it was the best thing since penicillin – something that doctors were encouraged to prescribe to all of their patients. Nobody could anticipate what it actually did: induce sleeping, prevent morning sickness, and drastically harm unborn children.
But, whilst thalidomide rampaged and ravaged throughout most of the West, it never reached the United States. It landed on the desk of Dr Frances Kelsey, and there it stayed as she battled hierarchy, patriarchy, and the Establishment in an effort to prove that it was dangerous. Frankie is her story.

Frankie is the second of James Essinger's biographies that I have read recently (the first being Charles And Ada) and I appreciate these opportunities to learn more about the lives of important women of science. It turns out scientific history is not quite so male dominated as I had previously believed and, yes, I do recognise the irony of a male author opening my eyes to this! Together with Sandra Koutsenko, Essinger has written a fascinating biography of Dr Frances Kelsey, a woman recognised for her dedication and perseverance in America and whom I now feel should be far more widely known!

I remember in my childhood that a man with very short arms, one of the thalidomide babies from some twenty years previously, lived just along the road from my family. Therefore I was aware of the aftermath of this medical disaster from quite an early age, but it wasn't until I read Frankie that I realised just how much I didn't know about how it came about and, most shockingly, how many years passed before thalidomide's destructive effects were recognised. It's probably a sad sign of the times that I wasn't particularly surprised by the drug companies' lack of care or sense of responsibility at any point though.

In Frankie, Essinger and Koutsenko discuss the creation of thalidomide, its European marketing, and the fluke of chance which allocated its USA approval to Dr Frances Kelsey rather than to any other FDA official who might just have rubber stamped the application. They incorporate information from all around the world together with letters to and from the FDA, excerpts from Frankie's own memoir of the events, and later interviews and recollections to give an insightful and compelling account. This book certainly doesn't read like a dry history and, with the benefit of hindsight, I could understand just how important Frankie's careful deliberations were. It was nice to see her superiors exhibiting such good faith in her judgement too - especially in an era when women's intellectual powers weren't always so well recognised! 

I wish I had had the opportunity to read this biography thirty years ago when making my choice of study subjects at school! I think the very readable story would be as fascinating to teenage readers as it was to me, and younger me would have been so inspired by Frankie's example. (Older me is also inspired, but not enough to go back to school!) I am, however, now eagerly anticipating further books from Essinger and Koutzenko telling the stories of more should-already-be-famous women!

Meet the authors

JAMES ESSINGER is the author of non-fiction books that focus on STEM subjects and personalities, including Charles and Ada (The History Press) and Ada’s Algorithm (Gibson Square), the latter of which has been optioned for a film. He lives in Canterbury.

SANDRA KOUTZENKO is a bilingual writer whose work spans a variety of categories and topics, ranging from French poetry to English non-fiction, focusing on human nature and the conflict between its potential for greatness and its propensity for destruction.

Author links: 
The History Press Twitter ~ The History Press Instagram
James' Facebook ~ James' Twitter

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  1. It was shocking how the damage that drug caused was all hushed up around the world. It ruined so many lives and people are still fighting for compensation.

    1. I didn't realise that thalidomide is still available in some countries too!!