Karen Wetterhahn, the Chemist Whose Poisoning Death Changed Safety Standards

Courtesy of Dartmouth College Library
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 (NMR) 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.”

Madelyn Pugh Davis, the “Girl Writer” Behind I Love Lucy

It was February 11, 1954, and Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were waiting nervously at the Emmy Awards. Their costar on I Love Lucy, Vivian Vance, had already won a Best Series Supporting Actress award for her portrayal of landlady Ethel Mertz. And now, Ball and Arnaz stood on stage at the Hollywood Palladium to accept the Emmy for Best Situation Comedy for I Love Lucy.

“It wouldn’t be right to call our writers up here, and give [the Emmy] to them, would it?” Ball asked the audience. “But I wish we could.” Arnaz also gave a nod to the importance of the show’s writers: “I just want to say this—and I really mean this—I hope that next year, the Academy does not forget the writers.”

Without I Love Lucy’s three main writers—Jess Oppenheimer, Bob Carroll Jr., and Madelyn Pugh Davis—television would be missing some of its most famously funny scenes. Davis, the only female writer on I Love Lucy, wrote for all the episodes of the six-season show. She often tested the slapstick herself, becoming key to the visual gags that made the series so memorable, from a chocolate factory assembly line cranked to an impossible speed to a giant loaf of bread overflowing from an oven.

Born on March 15, 1921, Davis (originally Madelyn Pugh) grew up in Indianapolis, where her father worked at a bank's real estate department. She wanted to be a writer from the time she was a child, and crafted her first play—performed in her living room—at the age of 10. Later, she co-edited her high school newspaper alongside fellow student Kurt Vonnegut [PDF].

In 1942, she graduated from Indiana University with a journalism degree, determined to become a foreign correspondent. "Somebody pointed out that there were very few women foreign correspondents, but there were very few women anything, so it didn’t bother me," Davis wrote in her 2005 memoir Laughing With Lucy. After failing to find a job she wanted in journalism, she began working as a copywriter at an Indianapolis radio station. She was one of only a few women to work behind the scenes in radio back then—an opportunity she attributed to the relative dearth of men, who were off fighting in World War II.

The next year, she and her family moved to Los Angeles, where she found work as a staff writer at NBC Radio. She met Bob Carroll Jr. at her next staff writer gig, at CBS Radio about six months later, where she was often referred to as the "girl writer." She and Carroll became writing partners, working on comedy scripts for radio shows including The Couple Next Door and It’s a Great Life. While writing for My Favorite Husband on CBS, they got the chance to work with Ball, the star of that show. Davis would later describe Ball as fearless, someone willing to "do anything" for the sake of comedy.

It was after about two and a half years of writing for My Favorite Husband that Davis got her big break. As she tells it in Laughing With Lucy, the then-network vice president of programming for CBS West Coast, Harry Ackerman, and Ball's agent decided to give the red-headed star a try on the then-new medium of television. Ball insisted on a show featuring her real-life husband, Arnaz, but "the network didn't feel the audience would believe Lucy was married to a Cuban band leader. Lucy told them stubbornly that she was married to a Cuban band leader, and the audience would like it fine," Davis wrote.

To prove it, Ball hired Davis and Carroll to write a stage act that she and Arnaz would perform during his show on the road. Audiences roared with laughter, and the network ordered a television pilot based on the act. Ball requested that Davis, Carroll, and Jess Oppenheimer (the producer and head writer on My Favorite Husband) write I Love Lucy’s first episode. “And so we said 'I guess we better learn to write for television,'" Davis said in an interview with the Writers Guild Foundation.

Besides brainstorming funny ideas, pitching storylines, and writing dialogue, Davis also typed the scripts and acted out some of the show’s visual stunts, making sure that a woman of roughly Ball’s height and size would be able to perform them safely.

“We’d wrap Madelyn in rugs and strap her into swivel chairs and hang her out of windows, and she came through nicely,” Carroll recalled. “So I said, ‘If it works for Madelyn, it will work for Lucy.’” (Not all the gags worked, however; after one perilous trip on a unicycle resulted in Davis running into a wall and hitting her head, she "decided it was too dangerous for Lucy.")

In the scripts, Davis typed the step-by-step instructions for these physical gags in all caps, leading Ball to call them “the black stuff.” Rather than improvise these stunts, Ball relied on Davis’s detailed, highly choreographed writing to know how to move her body and when to make certain facial expressions—all for maximum comedy.

To come up with enough ideas to write hundreds of funny episodes, Davis drew on her own life for inspiration, writing jokes about her experiences picking which movie to watch or what entree to order at a restaurant. “All writers do that. You use your own experience and pretty soon, when you're doing a weekly show, you just use everything you can,” Davis told the Writers Guild Foundation.

After I Love Lucy ended, Davis continued working with Carroll, writing for other Ball productions such as The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, The Lucy Show, Here’s Lucy, Life With Lucy, and the 1968 film Yours, Mine and Ours. During their 50-year working partnership, Davis and Carroll also wrote The Mothers-In-Law (which was executive produced by Desi Arnaz), produced the sitcom Alice, and co-wrote Laughing With Lucy. They were nominated for three Emmy Awards.

Davis, who married twice and had one son, died in Los Angeles in 2011 at 90 years old. Lucie Arnaz, Ball and Arnaz’s daughter, described her as a class act. “A very private person, very soft-spoken, genteel, feminine—all those lovely words you associate with great ladies. And yet she had the ability to write this wacky, insane comedy for my mother.”

Bernarr Macfadden: Bodybuilder, Publisher, and Eccentric Prophet of Physical Culture

The History Collection/Alamy Stock Photo
The History Collection/Alamy Stock Photo

Bernarr Macfadden, who almost single-handedly launched the twin American obsessions with diet and exercise, wanted you to picture a roaring lion when you said his name out loud. Not content with his birth name, Bernard, the young Macfadden had his name legally changed so it supposedly better resembled a roar: Bernarr.

Macfadden certainly did roar his way through life. Born August 16, 1868 as Bernard McFadden on a farm in Mill Spring, Missouri, he was orphaned by the time he was 11. Macfadden’s father died from delirium tremens (alcohol withdrawal), and his mother from tuberculosis. The young boy was briefly installed in a Chicago boarding school, then housed, equally briefly, with relatives who ran a hotel in the city. He then worked as a farm laborer in northern Illinois for two years before he took to the open road, working as a miner, a dentist's assistant, a wood chopper, a printer’s apprentice, and a water boy for a construction team.

Because he spent his childhood dreading the arrival of the same tuberculosis symptoms that had killed his mother, Macfadden grew increasingly obsessed with physical fitness and healthy eating as wards against disease. By his late teenage years, he had set himself up in St. Louis, where he diligently practiced a well-honed exercise routine that included repeat sets with dumbbells and the horizontal bar, as well as daily six-mile walks carrying a 10-pound lead bar. He also decided on his purpose in life: spreading the gospel of exercise.

Around 1887, he rented a gym space in St. Louis, Missouri, and set a bold sign out front: "Bernarr Macfadden-Kinistherapist-Teacher of Higher Physical Culture." If you've never heard of a kinistherapist before, neither had Macfadden. The nonexistent profession just sounded good to him. And it sounded good to the people of St. Louis too. In a short while, business was booming.

But Macfadden had bigger dreams than St. Louis could fulfill. His drive to spread the gospel of physical culture soon led him to leave behind his St. Louis gym and head for New York City, where he rented a place in Manhattan and invited the press over for a “Physical Culture Matinee.” Surprisingly, the press actually showed up; their entertainment that afternoon consisted of Macfadden “chatting and posing in an interesting way,” according to one observer.

In 1899, at 30 years old, Macfadden launched Physical Culture magazine as a showcase for his ideas on bodybuilding, exercise, and diet. Those ideas boiled down to a simple formula: eat good foods, exercise often, and go on occasional fasts (his focus on fasting is seen as the precursor to today's popular ketogenic diet, by some accounts). However, his enthusiasm often overwhelmed his sensible ideas. He frequently campaigned against doctors and vaccinations, and generalized American “prudery.”

A portrait of Bernarr Macfadden
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Despite its quirky character, Physical Culture was a near-immediate hit. Macfadden’s tireless promotion and obvious zeal for his ideas were aided by convenient timing: Just as the magazine launched, Americans were turning for the first time en masse to improving their diet and exercise routines, encouraged by a similar craze in Britain as well as nationalistic fitness efforts like the gymnasiums favored by German-American immigrants. Macfadden was in the right place at the right time to be the prophet of the diet and exercise movement.

Like other self-styled prophets before him, however, Macfadden’s outsized personality became one of his greatest obstacles. He was given to fits of mooing and braying, which he believed aided in voice development. He wore his hair thick, wild, and long (at least by early 20th century standards) as proof of the efficacy of his cure for baldness (a “cure,” by the way, that involved vigorous pulling on the hair). He believed shoes were unnatural, so he frequently tramped about barefoot. He slept on the floor, with windows wide open even in winter. His hatred for the fashion industry led him to wear his clothes for years until they were literally hanging from his body in tatters. This last habit led to some unfortunate confrontations with the doormen at his New York apartment building, who frequently mistook him for a hobo.

Nevertheless, Physical Culture magazine made Macfadden wealthy and provided the seed money to launch twin empires in publishing and health. By the 1920s, he owned 10 highly successful magazines and was worth upward of $30 million. His publishing ideas were innovative and profitable, despite their often tawdry character. He launched the first true confession magazine, True Story, in 1919, as well as a number of other magazines in the same vein, such as True Romance and True Detective. He also launched the legendary New York Evening Graphic, one of the forerunners of modern tabloid newspapers. With article titles such as “I Taught My Wife to Drink,” “I Am the Mother of My Sister’s Son,” and “I Killed Him, What’ll I Do?,” the sordid stories of sin, guilt, and redemption in Macfadden's titles were hugely popular with the American masses.

The cover of "True Detective Mysteries," July 1926
Internet Archive // Public Domain

Macfadden simultaneously spread his Physical Culture empire into the health arena as well. He opened a chain of Physical Culture restaurants, with the gimmick of charging one cent for every item on the menu, following the idea that the best foods for you were also the cheapest. He also established four spas, dubbed “healthoriums,” in upstate New York, Long Island, the New Jersey Pine Barrens, and Battle Creek, Michigan. At the Macfadden spas, participants could aim to achieve “an absolute purity of their blood through a regimen of exercise, fresh air, bland diet, and no medicines.” Macfadden’s empire-building reached its zenith at his spa in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, which he vigorously—and unsuccessfully—campaigned to have incorporated into a new town dubbed “Physical Culture City.”

Macfadden’s outsized ego and overbearing convictions reportedly made him a difficult marital partner. His first two marriages quickly ended in divorce. His third marriage, arguably more successful, came about in a particularly Macfadden-ian way: Bernarr was in England, judging a contest he’d organized to find “the most perfectly formed female.” The winner was one Mary Williamson, a competitive swimmer, who was subsequently convinced to become Macfadden's third bride. He later would assert that her prize for winning the contest was … him.

Their marriage survived 34 years and produced seven children, named (by Bernarr, of course): Byrnece, Beulah, Beverly, Braunda, Byrne, Berwyn, and Bruce (although some sources call him Brewster). In 1946, Mary obtained a divorce, in drawn-out and very public proceedings.

Bernarr MacFadden and family members at the Capitol, where they were demonstrating how to keep fit to legislators.
Bernarr MacFadden and family members at the Capitol, where they were demonstrating how to keep fit to legislators.
Harris & Ewing, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Meanwhile, Macfadden’s fortunes began to diminish. The New York Evening Graphic, despite some early success, was quickly derided as one of America’s worst papers—thanks to sleazy headlines like “Weed Parties in Soldiers’ Love Nest.” The newspaper’s gradual collapse drained millions from Macfadden’s bank account. An ill-conceived run for the Republican nominee for president in 1936 also led to widespread public derision for “Body Love Macfadden.” A third blow was the failure of his chain of one-cent restaurants; the gimmick couldn’t withstand the reality of restaurant overhead.

Macfadden was married a fourth time, briefly, to a woman half his age, who shortly after had the marriage annulled. He sold off his remaining magazine interests in the 1940s and spent his last years, and the last of his fortune, on a variety of stunts and schemes. He ran for the U.S. Senate in Florida, offered a prize for the best biographical play about his life, and, when he turned 81, celebrated the accomplishment by parachuting out of an airplane. That feat became an annual event for Macfadden, who proudly defied his advancing years by parachuting into the Hudson River every birthday, and once, when he turned 84, into the Seine in Paris. He said he’d continue every year until he turned 120.

Sadly, he died a few years later, at age 87, in 1955. His cause of death, depending on the source, was either cerebral thrombosis (a blood clot in a cerebral vein in the brain) or an attack of jaundice following a three-day fast. By the time he died, Macfadden had about $50,000 left of his fortune and was generally regarded as an eccentric hovering on the edges of fame, always angling for a new way to see his name in the paper.

Macfadden’s ideas, however, outlived him, and some of them ended up having some merit. He was one of the first Americans to loudly proclaim the benefits of exercise and dieting. He railed against corsets and white bread, both of which have substantially declined in popularity. Today, you can find thousands of people jogging and lifting weights in cities across the country—highly unusual pursuits before Macfadden started spreading the doctrine of Physical Culture.

Additional Source: Great American Eccentrics

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