CLOSE
Original image
Getty Images

Chuck Jones, animator of Looney Tunes

Original image
Getty Images

Few animated series have aged as gracefully as Looney Tunes, and that’s in large measure because of director Chuck Jones. He drew relentlessly as a child, a result of a nearly unlimited access to pencils and stationery because of his father’s business ventures. (Each time one of his dad’s companies closed, Chuck and his siblings were given the remainder office supplies.) He never stopped drawing, and would go on to elevate animated shorts as an art form. Here are a few things you might not have known about the man behind Bugs Bunny.

He worked for Walt.

After Warner Brothers closed its animation studio, Chuck Jones worked for Walt Disney. “In animation,” he said in an interview, “asking ‘Walt who?’ would be a very strange thing. It would be like saying ‘Jesus,’ and saying ‘Jesus who?’—he was that important.” (Jones added that poor Walt Lantz, director and producer of Woody Woodpecker, was always overshadowed as the other Walt. “There were no Chucks, which is just as well.”)

He didn’t last long at Disney, though.

“The reason I stopped working [at Disney] was because I saw that nothing happened unless Walt okayed it, and you might have to wait three weeks to get an appointment with Walt to come in and see this sequence you were working on. And it was old stuff to these guys, but not to me. I was used to working at a pace.” 

Dr. Seuss was an old war buddy.

During World War II, Jones served with Theodor Geisel in a unit that produced training films for soldiers. They worked on such series as Situation Snafu and Fubar. Army training shorts could be pretty boring, he noted. “The pictures were made by some Army colonel who thought he was a director.” Jones and Geisel made it a point to keep their films interesting and entertaining. As if it’s not weird enough that the guy behind Bugs Bunny and the guy behind the Cat in the Hat were war buddies, they later collaborated with the Navy on other films. The Navy liaison? Hank Ketcham, the cartoonist behind Dennis the Menace. 

He didn’t make Saturday morning cartoons...

This might sound weird to anyone under 30, but for a very long time, if you wanted to watch cartoons, you had to wake up early on Saturday mornings. Looney Tunes, of course, was a mainstay. But none of Chuck Jones’s work was made for children on Saturday mornings. “They were always made for theatrical release right up to ’63. None of them were made for television. There’s a perfectly logical reason for it, and it was that there wasn’t any television.” In the 1930s and 40s, he and his team figured the work that they were doing had a total lifespan of three years—first run through fifth run—until finally the films would be worn and retired. Accordingly, they were unafraid to take risks with what they were doing. This often drove their producers crazy. “We got a double pleasure, and that was to make pictures that we enjoyed making, plus making someone else uncomfortable by doing it.

“Because we were so young and had recently left our parents, or teachers, we had very little respect for adults. So we ended up where every creative person is, and that is where you paint or draw for yourself. And we figured if we made each other laugh, hopefully the audience would as well. And it turns out they did.”

...and yet he helped invent Saturday morning cartoons.

In the mid-1950s, KTLA in Los Angeles and WNEW in New York starting running old Warner Brothers cartoons from the archives on Saturday mornings, thus beginning the tradition of programming for children. Animated features at the cinema didn’t last long after that. “We used to kid about it when television was being done... We figured TV might put us out of work, which eventually it did.”

He said of his work at Warners, which was never meant to survive, let alone endure, “We kind of lived in a paradise and we didn’t know it.”

He reportedly considered "What’s Opera, Doc?" to be his greatest work.

If the words “Kill the wabbit!” mean anything to you, then you’re familiar with arguably the greatest cartoon of all time. The 1957 animated short features Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, and parodies Wagner’s operas. (The cartoon’s most famous line is sung to "Ride of the Valkyries.") This wasn’t his only take on opera. He took on Rossini in 1949’s Rabbit of Seville.

He had to persuade his old friend that How the Grinch Stole Christmas would make a great show.

“I had known Ted during the war, but it had been 15 years... I had really wanted to do something of his, and Charlie Brown was one of the only works I knew doing a Christmas special.” Jones thought that Dr. Seuss was the natural person for such an annual tradition. “So I called up Ted, so I ask him would he be willing to think about doing it? He was anti-Hollywood, very much, because when he left after the war they pirated a lot of his stuff and took his credits off of his features... He did some documentaries—one of which won the Academy Award and someone else took it. So he was pretty sour about that.” How did he persuade Geisel? “I told him this was another field—this was television!—and he didn't know much about televisions either.” 

Ironically, a banking consortium agreed to sponsor the show, which helped Jones sell the Christmas special to the networks. Jones later noted that Dr. Seuss’s publisher should have sponsored the show, because the cartoon doubled sales of the book that year, and they haven’t slowed since.

He was once, under protest, the vice president in charge of children’s programming at ABC.

In 1972, he was hired by ABC TV to be its vice president of children’s programming. “I’m guilty of a lot of sins,” he said, “but that is one I’d just as soon forget.” How did he get the job? “I complained so much about children’s programming that these guys called my bluff. They said come over and do something... well that was a very good idea except nobody listened to me.” He didn’t last long. “I didn’t want to be vice president. I wanted to go back to doing drawings.” 

Original image
Edward Curtis, Library of Congress
arrow
Retrobituaries
Retrobituaries: Buffalo Calf Road Woman, Custer's Final Foe
Original image
Three Cheyenne warriors on horseback.
Edward Curtis, Library of Congress

For the Native Americans of the Northern Plains, the Battle of Little Bighorn was a glorious victory against U.S. government forces intent on claiming their land. Fought on June 25, 1876, in Montana Territory, the battle saw Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors quickly overwhelm and kill some 260 U.S. troops. George Armstrong Custer, the Civil War hero sent to remove the Native Americans to their reservations, was among them.

Though the exact circumstances surrounding Custer’s death have long been the subject of debate, a new and intriguing account of his final moments surfaced in June 2005 when members of the Northern Cheyenne broke more than a century of silence to recount their tribe’s oral history of the battle. According to their account, it was a female fighter named Buffalo Calf Road Woman (alternately called Buffalo Calf Trail Woman) who knocked Custer off his horse that day, leaving him vulnerable, and who may have killed him.

Frank Rowland, a Cheyenne elder, told the Montana-based Independent Record, “The chiefs said to keep a vow of silence for 100 summers. One-hundred summers have now passed and we’re breaking our silence.” (In fact, almost 130 summers had passed by 2005.) The Northern Cheyenne said they had never publicly issued their account of the battle before because they feared retribution from the U.S. government.

The 2005 account wasn't the first mention of Buffalo Calf Road Woman at Little Bighorn, however. Thomas B. Marquis’s posthumous 1967 book Custer on the Little Bighorn includes the account of a female eyewitness who says: “Most of the women looking at the battle stayed out of reach of the bullets, as I did. But there was one who went in close at times. Her name was Calf [Road] Woman …[she] had a six-shooter, with bullets and powder, and she fired many shots at the soldiers. She was the only woman there who had a gun.”

Other details of Buffalo Calf Road Woman's life are scant. Most likely born in the 1850s, she was married to a warrior, Black Coyote, with whom she had two children. In the 1953 book Cheyenne Autumn, the Western historian and novelist Mari Sandoz describes her at the 1878 Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork in Kansas as both a mother and a warrior—“a gun in her hands, ready, the baby tied securely to her back.”

Her battlefield courage first cemented its place in tribal history about a week before Custer's Last Stand, at the June 17, 1876 Battle of the Rosebud, where the Cheyenne and Lakota tribes fought against the U.S. Army. There, Buffalo Calf Road Woman saved her brother—whose horse had been struck down—by charging on horseback into a melee of gunfire to rescue him. After that, the Cheyenne referred to the Battle of the Rosebud as the “Battle Where the Girl Saved Her Brother.”

Wallace Bearchum, Director of Tribal Services for the Northern Cheyenne, tells Mental Floss that her warrior exploits then surfaced at the Battle of Little Bighorn, where she fought “out in the open” instead of taking any cover, and where “she stayed on her horse the entire time.” Bearchum adds that although Buffalo Calf Road Woman was an “excellent markswoman,” she used a club-like object, not a gun, to knock Custer off his horse. It's not clear exactly what happened after that, but Bearchum says that Buffalo Calf Road Woman and other Cheyenne and Sioux women “finished off Custer and the other Calvary soldiers right after the battle was over," going "from soldier to soldier to finish them off or take things from them … remembering relatives killed by [U.S.] soldiers in previous attacks.”

"When [Custer] fell," Rowland explained to the Record in 2005, "he wasn't touched by the warriors because he was unclean. He was bad medicine." A scouting party found Custer's nude body two days later with two potentially fatal bullet holes, although we may never know for sure who caused them, or exactly which wound led him to lose his life.

A 1903 painting of the Battle of Little Bighorn
"The Custer fight," C.M. Russell, 1903 // Library of Congress

No matter how brave she was, Buffalo Calf Road Woman was fighting a losing battle against the federal government. Doggedly pursued by U.S. troops, Buffalo Calf Road Woman, her warrior husband Black Coyote, and the other Cheyenne in their group had been on the run and were reaching the point of starvation. They were eventually relocated in the summer of 1877 to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).

Finding themselves homesick and miserable in their new territory, however, they soon joined the Northern Cheyenne Exodus, which took place from the fall of 1878 to the spring of 1879, during which some 300 members of the tribe sought to return to their homeland in the northern part of the U.S.

Unfortunately, during the exodus, Black Coyote's personality changed: He became unhinged, flying into fits of hostility and brandishing a gun against his own people. He also stole horses that were property of the U.S. Army. When then confronted by a tribal elder, Black Coyote fatally shot him.

Buffalo Calf Road Woman’s husband was also a danger to outsiders. On April 5, 1879, a party he led ambushed two U.S. soldiers who were repairing a telegraph line in Montana Territory, killing one of them. When U.S. forces tracked down the party, Black Coyote had some of the slain soldier’s possessions on his person. He and two cohorts were arrested and in short order tried, convicted, and sentenced to be executed by hanging.

While this was going on, Buffalo Calf Road Woman’s own situation began to deteriorate. She had caught the “white man’s coughing disease,” also known as diphtheria, and died at some point in May 1879. Bearchum says he doesn't know the exact location of her burial, but explains that back then, the Cheyenne custom was to bury the dead immediately in the nearby hills. He thinks Buffalo Calf Road Woman was buried in the hills near what is now Miles City, Montana.

Although there is no monument to her, and Bearchum says “funding is needed” for further commemorations, she has been the subject of at least one prize-winning novel, by Rosemary and Joseph Agonito: Buffalo Calf Road Woman: The Story of a Warrior of the Little Bighorn.

Original image
Courtesy of Dartmouth College Library
arrow
Retrobituaries
Karen Wetterhahn, the Chemist Whose Poisoning Death Changed Safety Standards
Original image
Courtesy of Dartmouth College Library

Karen Wetterhahn was pipetting a small amount of dimethylmercury under a fume hood in her lab at Dartmouth College when she accidentally spilled a drop or two of the colorless liquid on her latex glove. The chemistry professor and toxic metals expert immediately followed safety protocol, washing her hands and cleaning her tools, but the damage was already done, even though she didn't know it. It was August 14, 1996. By June of the next year, the mother of two was dead.

Scientists would later learn that Wetterhahn’s latex gloves offered no protection from the dimethylmercury, an especially dangerous organic mercury compound. Although a few other people had died from dimethylmercury poisoning before, including English lab workers in 1865 and a Czech chemist in 1972, no one understood how dangerous the substance really was. Wetterhahn’s death would change that, and usher in new safety standards for one of the most toxic substances known to humans.

A photograph of two disposable latex gloves
iStock

Born in 1948 in Plattsburgh, upstate New York, Wetterhahn loved science. After graduating from St. Lawrence University in 1970, she earned her doctorate at Columbia University, then spent a year working at Columbia’s Institute of Cancer Research for the National Institutes of Health before joining the Dartmouth faculty in 1976.

As Dartmouth’s first female chemistry professor, Wetterhahn mentored students and co-founded the college’s Women in Science Project, which encourages female undergraduates in science majors. She served as an academic dean, and in 1995, with a $7 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, started Dartmouth’s Toxic Metals Research Program to investigate the effects of common metal contaminants on human health.

Wetterhahn also made a name for herself outside Dartmouth, especially through her investigations into how our cells metabolize chromium and how the metal can cause cancer. She served as an officer of the American Association for Cancer Research, and wrote over 80 research papers for scientific journals. While she wasn’t working, the professor spent time with her husband Leon, their son Ashley, and daughter Charlotte.

In November 1996, Wetterhahn began vomiting and feeling nauseous. Over the next couple of months, her condition worsened; her speech was slurred, she had trouble seeing and hearing, and she was regularly falling down.

At first, doctors in the emergency room didn’t know what was wrong. After a series of spinal taps and CT scans, doctors told Wetterhahn her symptoms were consistent with mercury poisoning. One of them asked her husband if she had any enemies who might have poisoned her; Wetterhahn told them about the dimethylmercury spill in her office. She was diagnosed with mercury poisoning in late January 1997 and soon after began chelation therapy, ingesting medication that would bind to the toxic chemical and help it pass through her body.

In the late 1990s, although scientists knew about the dangers of mercury and some of its compounds, the danger of dimethylmercury was little understood. The compound was employed exclusively for research: Scientists used it as a reference standard for nuclear magnetic resonance (NRM) spectroscopy, a process that allows scientists to study the effects of toxins in human cells. As a liquid, dimethylmercury made an ideal reference standard, because scientists could use it in its pure form without diluting it in a solution and potentially altering its properties. When she spilled the drop of dimethylmercury on her glove, Wetterhahn was measuring its NRM so she could get a baseline to study the effects of other toxic metal compounds.

While Wetterhahn was fighting for her life, her colleagues at Dartmouth (as well as scientists around the world) read scientific papers about mercury, hoping to discover a way to help her. They also tested her hair, clothing, car, students, family, and hospital room to make sure that no one else had been exposed to dimethylmercury.

Sadly, the level of mercury in Wetterhahn’s blood was too high—800 times the normal level—for doctors to save her. She went into a coma in February, and died on June 8, 1997.

According to Dr. David Nierenberg, a member of the toxicology team that treated Wetterhahn, one of her last wishes was for scientists and physicians to investigate dimethylmercury so that other researchers wouldn’t be sickened as she had been.

“She really, really cared that the message get out to other scientists and doctors that poisoning with mercury is possible and we need to do everything possible to prevent it,” he told The New York Times.

A vial of liquid in front of scientific papers
iStock

Wetterhahn did not die in vain. Her death changed the kinds of precautions scientists at Dartmouth and around the world take when working with toxic substances.

Shortly before she died, her colleagues initiated research that showed dimethylmercury races through latex gloves almost instantly [PDF]. They then published an article [PDF] warning scientists about her fate and urging them to wear two pairs of gloves, including heavier laminate gloves, when working with toxic chemicals.

That same year, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Dartmouth for failing to adequately train staff on the limits of disposable gloves, and published a bulletin about Wetterhahn’s death, instructing scientists about the precautions they should take in the lab—wearing impervious gloves and a face shield, immediately reporting spills, getting periodic blood and urine testing when regularly working with dimethylmercury, and substituting less-hazardous substances when possible. All of this has made scientists more cautious when it comes to using simple latex gloves around toxic materials.

Her death also raised the alarm about the long time frame that can elapse between exposure and manifestations of mercury poisoning—Wetterhahn had largely forgotten the incident by the time her symptoms began to occur. Conventional toxicological wisdom had assumed that large doses of mercury would produce poisoning symptoms sooner than small doses, but Wetterhahn's death proved otherwise. In 2002, her case was one of three reviewed in an article in Environmental Health Perspectives [PDF], which noted that “low-level exposures are more likely than high-level exposures to show evidence of adverse effects or, at least, to show them more rapidly.” In other words, the stealth of high-dose mercury poisonings makes them even more dangerous.

But stepped-up safety standards aren’t the only way Wetterhahn has been remembered. Dartmouth has honored her legacy by naming chemistry fellowships, faculty awards, and an annual science symposium after her. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences also established the Karen Wetterhahn Memorial Award, for graduate students and post-doctoral researchers who demonstrate “the qualities of scientific excellence exhibited by Dr. Wetterhahn.”

"The accident was a wake‐up call," Ed Dudek, a post‐doctoral fellow working in Wetterhahn’s chromium group, told Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. "We’re now extremely aware of everything we’re doing.”

SECTIONS

More from mental floss studios