Dr Alexander Leslie Florence

1927 - 26 March 2018

Alexander Leslie Florence (known as Leslie) was born in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. He was the first in his family to attend university. Dr A Leslie Florence had graduated in medicine at Aberdeen University in 1950 gaining two university prizes on the way. He undertook a series of jobs at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and in 1954, applied for a post in General Practice in Turriff. Unlike today when there is a shortage of GP’s, he was one of 80 applicants for the post and was successful.  He moved to Turriff with his wife Dora and started in the Medical Practice there. Along with a junior assistant, he looked after 7,000 patients in Turriff and the surrounding area. His son was born in 1955. He was known and respected by patients as “Dr Florence - such a good GP,” and his thoroughness and acumen were evident in a letter published in the BMJ.

Dr Florence and his son both suffered from eczema. He tried a new drug Distaval which gave him excellent sleep and no hangover. After a while he noticed some neurological side effects as well as in some of his patients. He contacted the drug company, Grunenthal, who stated that it was impossible for the drug to have these effect. Frustrated by their intransigence and on the advice of Professor McGregor, professor of Therapeutics in Aberdeen, he wrote of his observations to the British Medical Journal.

Thus, Dr Florence’s letter was published in the BMJ on Dec 31st 1960, the first medical record of side effect of Distaval, otherwise known as Thalidomide.

Unknown to him, his observations were to have worldwide effects:

1. It alerted Dr McBride, an obstetrician in Australia to the risks of Thalidomide and he was the first to report the obstetric risks of Thalidomide
2. It alerted Dr Frances Kelsey of the US Food & Drug Administration to dangers with the drug, with the long-term result that the drug was not introduced into the USA.
3. It exposed the drug company which eventually had to withdraw the drug.

As a result of his observations, Dr. Kelsey refused to licence the drug in the USA until the neurotoxicity was explained. Sometime after, the teratogenic effects came to light and the drug was withdrawn. This action saved thousands of women being exposed to the drug during pregnancy, as a result of which the Thalidomide tragedy was largely averted in the US. For this service Dr Kelsey was to receive the Presidential Award for Distinguished Federal Civil Service – the highest civilian honour in the US - from President JF Kennedy in 1962. Dr Florence did not receive any awards.

A further major consequence of the Thalidomide story was a radical examination of the hitherto serendipitous process of drug development in the UK. This included the setting up of the Committee of Safety of Medicines, the emergence of Clinical Pharmacology as a clinical specialty, and a whole raft of regulatory and scientific disciplines relating to Drug Safety and the Pharmaceutical Industry.”

In 1966, Dr Florence migrated with his wife and children to New Zealand, practising for decades as a GP in a suburb of the capital Wellington. On retirement in 1998, he moved to Paraparaumu on the North Island of New Zealand.

Alexander Leslie Florence died from septicaemia at Rotorua Hospital, New Zealand.

Silent Shock: The Men Behind the Thalidomide Scandal and an Australian Family's Long Road to Justice

Biography prepared from the nomination made to the University of Aberdeen 525 Alumni project.