Jennifer Vanderbes wins development grant for historical script about thalidomide’s hidden U.S. history

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Jennifer Vanderbes [Courtesy]

Award-winning novelist, journalist and screenwriter Jennifer Vanderbes has been honored as the third winner of the annual Alfred P. Sloan Athena List Development Grant by the Athena Film Festival at Barnard College.

The 13th annual Athena Film Festival will take place March 2-5 on Barnard’s campus in New York City.

Vanderbes earned the grant for her script “The Gatekeeper,” a historical drama based on the story of Frances Kelsey, the FDA medical reviewer who in the early 1960s fought a major pharmaceutical firm to keep the drug thalidomide off the American market.

The grant “will help bring to the screen this important STEM story about the largest drug scandal of the 20th century,” said Vanderbes in a statement.

“Frances Kelsey was a unicorn of her day – a woman who held both a Ph.D. in Pharmacology and an M.D. She spent years battling government bureaucracy and corporate interests to keep thalidomide off the American market, and her scientific brilliance, moral integrity, and personal pluck make her a fabulous heroine, ripe for the screen, as the centerpiece of an epic battle against Big Pharma.”

Vanderbes receives $20,000 to help advance her script to the next stage of development, according to a news release. In December, the festival hosted a reception for the writer and a live script-reading of “The Gatekeeper” at Barnard College.

The script is based on Vanderbes’ own nonfiction book, “Wonder Drug: The Secret History of Thalidomide in America and Its Hidden Victims,” also supported by the Sloan Foundation.

The book, to published by Random House on June 20, includes Vanderbes’ research into how the drug firm Merrell, under the guise of clinical trials, quietly sent millions of pills to doctors nationwide despite Kelsey’s refusal to approve its application to “sell” thalidomide in the United States. Years before that, an additional drug company had asked doctors to test the drug on patients: The toxic sedative that was ostensibly “never sold” in America had, in fact, been distributed for five years, reaching tens of thousands of unwitting patients, including hundreds of pregnant women.

“We are proud to support Jennifer Vanderbes and her script ‘The Gatekeeper,’ based on a book previously supported by our Book Program that tells the story of another pioneering ‘hidden figure’ in STEM and the obstacles and prejudice she had to overcome to safeguard human health,” said Doron Weber, vice president and program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, in a statement.

Launched in 1996, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Film Program has awarded grants to more than 750 film projects from some of the nation’s most innovative filmmakers and has created a film development pipeline of multiple program partners through which Sloan nurtures and develops individual projects. Over the past 20 years, the foundation has partnered with six of the top film schools in the country and established annual awards in screenwriting and film production, along with an annual best-of-the-best Student Grand Jury Prize. The foundation also supports screenplay development programs at the Sundance Film Institute, Tribeca Film Institute, Black List, SFFILM, Film Independent and Athena Film Festival.

The Athena Film Festival is continuing to partner with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to bolster the pipeline of women filmmakers working to highlight the importance of women in the sciences. Since 2019, the Athena Film Festival and Sloan Foundation partnership has supported dozens of filmmakers and projects through grants, lab fellowships and showcase events at the annual festival.

Finalists for the 2022 Alfred P. Sloan Athena List Development Grant included “Ray of Life” by Kate Sheffield and “Tidal Disruption” by Kiran Deol.

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