Kim Kardashian, famous for being famous, is not a doctor and does not play one on TV. Everybody knows her name, even if they're not quite sure why.
But mention the name of a heroic doctor — Frances Oldham Kelsey — and expect blank stares. A half century ago, Dr. Kelsey, who died a few days ago at 101, was a new FDA employee in charge of drug licensing who prevented the scourge of "thalidomide babies" in the United States.
Dr. Kelsey refused to be bullied by a pharmaceutical company into approving a drug for morning sickness. It had already been sold in Europe and the drug company was ready to push into the highly profitable American market. Dr. Kelsey had questions and wanted more study. The drug company called her a petty, fussy, stubborn, unreasonable bureaucrat. She was unmoved. She had a public to protect.
Then the horrible evidence started pouring in from abroad of birth deformities, of babies born with flipperlike arms and legs. Dr. Kelsey had saved American babies from this fate, and her scientific persistence resulted in a law requiring tighter proof of drug safety and disclosure of side effects.
Such disclosure rules just snagged Ms. Kardashian, pregnant with her second child, who was using social media to promote a new prescription pill she takes to treat morning sickness. She has 42 million followers on Instagram, so her endorsement deal is a big deal. While this drug is approved for use, the FDA is unhappy that she neglected to mention any potential side effects — one of those pesky legal requirements — and told her to take down the posts.
With fame often comes power, and with power comes responsibility. Dr. Kelsey, the woman few can name, was a meticulous researcher who always insisted on sharing credit with her chemist, her pharmacologist and her superiors. It would be hard to reduce her body of work — she had a doctorate as well as a medical degree — to the requisite 140 characters we use today to communicate on Twitter. Ms. Kardashian fits in half that: "Kim Kardashian is a reality show star who is married to Kanye West."
Dr. Kelsey apparently didn't even have a Facebook page. Ms. Kardashian? She has 25 million followers. And yet, which woman would you most trust for medical advice?