The Last Efficient Bureaucrat

So if you’ve been watching the news lately, you know that the public sector has gone just a tad topsy-turvy on us. Let’s recap.

Last month, the federal government – the one that makes laws forcing other industries to protect customer data, such as medical records and financial information – was subjected to a massive breach of its personnel database. Sometimes irony is charming, and sometimes it’s just annoying.

Then, this month, in what could have been a report broadcast during Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, the Environmental Protection Agency managed to accidentally unleash a wave of toxic waste into a Colorado river at the height of the tourist season. Yes, this is the same EPA that was created during the Nixon administration to … well, it’s right there in the name … protect the environment. There is no truth to the rumor that it will be renamed the Environmental Destruction Agency.

Then there are the seemingly endless flow of news reports about police officers killing unnamed citizens during traffic stops. Perhaps I say policemen, because none of the offending officers appear to be female, which is odd, because for years men didn’t want women on the force because … oh my god, don’t you know that they can’t control their emotions? If the police force is supposed to protect us, who’s going to protect us from the police?

I’ve often railed about my desire not to have bigger government or smaller government, but more-effective government. I’d love it if government would make things better, but if it can’t, at least don’t make things worse.

Then, in the midst of all this, came a story about a bureaucrat who actually did make things better. The sad part is, it was her obituary, and the heroic stand she took on behalf of the American people took place during the Kennedy administration.

Her name was Frances Oldham Kelsey, and she died recently at age 101. Her efforts especially resonate with Baby Boomers. Why? Because she was the FDA official who suspected that the drug thalidomide wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and refused to approve its sale in the U.S. If Baby Boomers had nightmares as children, part of the reason was likely the horrifying pictures in Life magazine of malformed children whose mothers had taken a drug marketed as Kevadon for morning sickness.

As the New York Times said in Kelsey’s obituary last week, Kevadon’s manufacturer, Merrell, made “glowing claims” for its “safety and effectiveness. Dr. Kelsey, working with a chemist and a pharmacologist, found the evidence for Merrell’s claims about Kevadon to be insufficient. She withheld approval and asked Merrell for more data on toxicity, strength and purity.”

Merrell, of course, had stockpiled the drug in anticipation of FDA approval – which in those days was apparently no more than a rubber-stamp – and stood to lose millions if Kelsey didn’t give the okay. As the Times notes, “The company supplied more data, but also mounted a campaign to pressure Dr. Kelsey. Letters, calls and visits from Merrell executives ensued. She was called a fussy, stubborn, unreasonable bureaucrat. But she refused to be hurried, insisting that there was insufficient proof.”

Even as issues with the drug began to surface, the company insisted the evidence was “inconclusive.” Kelsey stood firm, convinced the company wasn’t forthcoming. Before long, tragically, with the birth of deformed babies in England and Europe, her reticence was proved correct. Although some babies in the U.S. were born with foreshortened arms and legs – because of Kevadon samples physicians had distributed – Kelsey averted a disaster the effects of which would still be reverberating today.

Simply put, she protected us from rapaciousness, arrogance, and error. Why can’t we have bureaucrats like that today?

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About middleagecranky

The Middle-Age Cranky blog is written by baby boomer Howard Baldwin, who finds the world, while occasionally wondrous, increasingly aggravating.
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One Response to The Last Efficient Bureaucrat

  1. sarah wasserman says:

    You mention drug samples being the cause of problems in the U.S. but I always heard it was drugs purchased in Europe by people getting around unavailability in the U.S. Very much like current purchases in Mexico or Canada to get drugs without prescriptions or to lower price.

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