Last month, 14-year-old Alison Tate won first place in the junior division National History Day contest for individual exhibits. This is big -- she is the first National History Day competitor from Michigan to place in the top three in the last 25 years.
Her exhibit was on Dr. Frances Kelsey, of the Federal Drug Administration, who is credited with preventing the sale of thalidomide in the U.S. in the early 1960s. Allison’s exhibit was called, “A Bitter Pill to Swallow: Dr. Kelsey’s Triumph Hides an American Tragedy.” Thalidomide was marketed as a sedative and used for morning sickness in pregnant women. Thousands of babies around the world were born with a variety of disabilities, including phocomelia, a shortening or absence of limbs, but according to the official story, few in the U.S. due to Dr. Kelsey’s intervention.Alison likes to find what she calls the “secret” story and found there was more to the official national narrative. As much as Dr. Kelsey did alert the government and public to the dangers of thalidomide and prevent its legal sale, there were some mothers in the U.S. that had been given the drug as a sample, and their children suffered the consequences.For her project, Alison did extensive research and relied heavily on oral interviews, such as with Dr. Kelsey’s daughter, and “survivors.” She was surprised to find a story of thalidomide in her own larger family history, an unfortunate story of a woman who had taken the drug and who had not been able to properly love the son born with a shortened arm as a result. Alison tells us in her interview that she tried to help heal the estrangement and that learning this worldwide tragedy had affected a distant family member was one of the most significant aspects of the project.Alison’s project was entered in the individual exhibit category – which meant she had to construct an exbibit and present the results of her research in a visual format. The project took months and culminated with the first-place prize in College Park, Maryland, in early June. Several others in her group also won awards, including two that placed in the top twenty in their category.Alison credits long-time coach Jan Klco for her encouragement, hours of work with the students (from Whitehall and Montague), and 14-year tenure with the program from its beginning. Alison says she does not have a special interest in history, but feels the work is valuable for her schooling, especially as it helps her to identify primary sources of information and cite them, and because she plans a career in the medical field.