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Canadian-born medical officer with the US Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Frances Kelsey, poses for a photo in her Washington D.C. home on November 2, 2014.Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Frances Kelsey, the Canadian doctor whose unyielding vigilance spared the United States from one of the worst drug disasters in history, died on Friday morning. She was 101.

Dr. Kelsey is regarded as a heroine for her role in the early 1960s opposing thalidomide, a teratogenic drug heavily promoted by its boosters as a safe sedative for pregnant women, but which caused an epidemic of birth defects around the world, including Canada.

Dr. Kelsey died less than 24 hours after receiving the insignia of Member of  the Order of Canada for her role in stopping thalidomide, a belated gesture of recognition by her native country announced in July. Dr. Kelsey's family requested that the ceremony be moved up as Dr. Kelsey's health declined.

Ontario's Lieutenant-Governor, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, came to the home of Dr. Kelsey's daughter in London, Ont., on Thursday afternoon to present Dr. Kelsey with the award.

"She had been on the edge for days. But she rallied," Dr. Kelsey's daughter, Christine Kelsey, said on Friday. "She was aware, and she was thrilled."

The drug, made by the German firm Chemie Grünenthal, was approved for use in countries around the world, including Britain, Japan and Canada. But Dr. Kelsey, a novice medical examiner working for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration at the dawn of the 1960s, remained skeptical about its safety. Her insistence on obtaining scientific evidence despite the drug company's relentless lobbying kept thalidomide at bay in the United States.

Her behaviour stood in contrast to that of officials at the Food and Drug Directorate in Ottawa, who signed off on the drug when presented with the same submission. The results in Canada were disastrous: More than 100 babies were born with extreme deformities such as missing limbs and internal organ damage, part of an epidemic of birth defects caused by thalidomide worldwide. Many others died shortly after birth.

Dr. Kelsey was an icon to the Canadian survivors of thalidomide, who returned to the public eye in late 2014 as they began pressing the federal government for compensation to cope with their growing financial and physical hardships. To them, Dr. Kelsey was the admirable guardian of the public trust that they never had.

A symbol of conscientiousness in the U.S. as well, Dr. Kelsey was given the Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service by President John F. Kennedy in 1962.

In 2015, at the age of 100, she was finally granted similar honours at home, when she was recognized with the Order of Canada. The honour coincided with Canada's belated recognition of its historic failure at protecting its citizens from the horrors of thalidomide. Canada announced a $180-million package with lifelong pensions for the drug's victims, now in their early 50s.

Frances Oldham was born in 1914 on Vancouver Island to a Scottish-born mother and a father who had become an officer in the British Army.

Her interest in science led her to McGill University in Montreal and, after getting an undergraduate and master's degree, she took a professor's advice and applied to the University of Chicago. She became the first candidate to obtain her PhD at the University of Chicago in the emerging field of pharmacology.

She married a fellow pharmacologist Fremont Ellis Kelsey, obtained her MD, worked as an editorial assistant reviewing articles for the Journal of the American Medical Association, then joined the FDA in 1960. Thalidomide was the first file to cross her desk.

She shot to global fame after the public learned of her role in stopping the drug, and she is credited with helping usher in a new era of tighter controls on drug regulations.

Dr. Kelsey remained attached to Canada throughout her life and returned in 2014 to live with her daughter in her country of birth. She is survived by her two daughters, Christine Kelsey and Susan Duffield, a sister, Monica Oldham, and two grandchildren.

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