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.”

Grace O'Malley, the Fearless 16th-Century Irish Pirate Queen Who Stood Up to the English

Rockfleet Castle, which Grace O’Malley used as a base
Rockfleet Castle, which Grace O’Malley used as a base

If asked to name a pirate from history, many people will mention Blackbeard or Captain William Kidd. If pressed to name a female pirate, they might mention Anne Bonny, who terrorized the Caribbean alongside Captain "Calico" Jack Rackham in the early 18th century. Anne Bonny, however, was far from the only female pirate to terrorize the seas. More than a century before Bonny's birth, another woman ruled the waves, debated with Queen Elizabeth I, and sat at the head of a prosperous pirate empire. She was Grace O'Malley, Pirate Queen.

Grace With the Cropped Hair

Known in Gaelic as Gráinne Ní Mháille, Grace was born in Ireland sometime around 1530. She was the daughter of Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Máille, ruler of the territory of Umhall and the lord of an ancient, powerful dynasty in the province of Connaught. The Ó Máille family's money came from the seas, raised in the form of taxes levied on anyone who fished off their stretch of the Irish coast. The family were also shrewd traders and merchants, trading (and sometimes plundering) as far away as Spain. Ó Máille castles also dominated the southwest coastline of County Mayo, providing protection from invasion for the wealthy lord's territory. At a time when the Tudors in England were ramping up their conquest of Ireland, such defensive measures were vital.

The folklore of Grace O'Malley begins in her childhood, when she supposedly begged her father to let her join him on a trade mission to Spain. When he refused his daughter's request on the grounds that her long hair would be hazardous on the rolling deck of a ship, she hacked off her mane, earning herself the nickname Gráinne Mhaol, or "Grace with cropped hair."

Though little is known of Grace's early life, when she was about 16 she made a political marriage to Dónal Ó Flaithbheartaigh, heir to the lands of Ó Flaithbheartaigh. It was an excellent dynastic match, but despite bearing her husband three children, Grace wasn't made for housewifery. She had more ambitious plans.

Soon Grace was the driving force in the marriage, masterminding a trading network to Spain and Portugal and leading raids on the vessels that dared to sail close to her shores. When her husband was killed in an ambush by a rival clan around 1565, Grace retreated to Clare Island, and established a base of operations with a band of followers. According to legend, she also fell in love with a shipwrecked sailor—and for a time life was happy. But when her lover was murdered by a member of the neighboring MacMahon family, Grace led a brutal assault on the MacMahon castle at Doona and slaughtered his killers. Her actions earned her infamy as the Pirate Queen of Connaught.

Though Grace remarried for the sake of expanding her political clout, she wasn't about to become a dutiful wife. Within a year she was divorced, though pregnant, and living at Rockfleet Castle, which she'd gained in the marriage and which became her center of operations. According to legend, the day after giving birth to to her ex-husband’s son aboard a ship, she leapt from her bed and vanquished attacking corsairs

Grace continued to lead raiding parties from the coast and seized English vessels and their cargo, all of which did little to endear her to the Tudors. She was known for her aggression in battle, and it's said that when her sons appeared to be shirking, she shamed them into action with a cry of "An ag iarraidh dul i bhfolach ar mo thóin atá tú, an áit a dtáinig tú as?"—which roughly translates as "Are you trying to hide in my arse, where you came out of?"

In 1574 an English expedition sailed for Ireland with the aim of putting an end to her exploits once and for all. Though they besieged Rockfleet Castle, no one knew the coastline better than Grace, and she repulsed them with the might of her own ships.

But Grace made history in 1593 after her son was captured by Sir Richard Bingham, the English governor of Connaught. Appointed in 1584, Bingham had taken office as part of English efforts to tighten their hold on Ireland, and in 1586 his men had been responsible for the death of one of Grace's sons. Bingham also took cattle and land from Grace, which only served to increase her thirst for revenge. Yet she was a politician as much as a warrior, and knew that she couldn't hope to beat Bingham and the forces of the English government single-handedly.

Instead, she took the diplomatic route and traveled to England, where she requested an audience with Queen Elizabeth I to discuss the release of her son and the seizure of her lands. In addition, she challenged Gaelic law that denied her income from her husband's land and demanded that she receive appropriate recompense. She argued that the tumult reigning in Connacht had compelled her to "take arms and by force to maintain [my]self and [my] people by sea and land the space of forty years past." Bingham urged the queen to refuse the audience, claiming that Grace was "nurse to all rebellions in the province for 40 years," but Elizabeth ignored his entreaties. Perhaps the monarch was intrigued by this remarkable woman, because Grace's request was granted, and the two women met in September 1593.

A Meeting With the Queen

An 18th-century depiction of the meeting between Grace O'Malley and Elizabeth I
An 18th-century depiction of the meeting between Grace O'Malley and Elizabeth I
Anthologia Hibernica volume II, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Grace's Greenwich Palace summit with the queen has become legendary. She supposedly wouldn't bow to Elizabeth, whom she didn't recognize as the Queen of Ireland. Though dressed in a magnificent gown that befit her status, she also carried a dagger, which she refused to relinquish. The queen, however, was happy to receive her visitor—dagger and all. The summit was conducted in Latin, supposedly the only tongue the two women shared. Ignoring the fact that they were virtually the same age, Elizabeth decided that there was only "pity to be had of this aged woman" whom she believed "will fight in our quarrel with all the world."

By the end of the long meeting, an agreement had been reached. Bingham would be instructed to return Grace's lands, pay her the funds she had demanded, and free her son. In return, Grace would withdraw her support of the Irish rebellion and attack only England's enemies.

Yet the victory was short-lived. Though her son was freed, Bingham's censure was brief, and Grace received back none of the territory she had lost. Grace was furious, and she soon withdrew from public life.

The last years of Grace O’Malley are shrouded in mystery. It’s believed that she died at Rockfleet Castle around 1603—the same year as Queen Elizabeth I. Her memory lives on, not least in the Irish ballads, which remember her with these verses:

In the wild grandeur of her mien erect and high
Before the English Queen she dauntless stood
And none her bearing there could scorn as rude
She seemed well used to power, as one that hath
Dominion over men of savage mood
And dared the tempest in its midnight wrath
And thro' opposing billows cleft her fearless path.

Additional Sources: Granuaile: The Life and Times of Grace O'Malley; Pirate Queen; Anecdotes of the Aristocracy; "The day the Virgin Queen bowed to the pirate queen," Times of London; A Forgotten Part of Ireland; "Gráinne Mhaol, Pirate Queen of Connacht: Behind the Legend," History Ireland.

Zora Neale Hurston, Genius of the Harlem Renaissance

Carl Van Vechten, Wikimedia // Public Domain
Carl Van Vechten, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Twentieth century African-American author Zora Neale Hurston is best known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. But her perseverance and love of her culture made for a much richer life than many people know.

Near the turn of the century, Hurston was born the spirited daughter of former slaves. Her parents had gone on to become a schoolteacher and a Baptist preacher. Her father's sermons were likely what sparked the girl's fascination with storytelling, which she'd later use not only in her works, but also in the construction of her public persona.

Over the course of her life, Hurston offered contradictory dates of birth. And in her 1942 autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road, she inaccurately claimed Eatonville, Florida, as her birthplace, when in truth she was born in Notasulga, Alabama, probably on January 7, 1891. But Eatonville was her home from about age 3 to 13, and a major influence on her work. One of the first places in the United States to be incorporated as an all-black town, it was also home to a vibrant and proud African-American community that protected the young Hurston from the cruel racial prejudices found elsewhere in the United States. Years later, Hurston would cherish this place and the self-confidence it instilled in her works. She once described it as "A city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools and no jailhouse."

Despite a seemingly ideal hometown, Hurston knew hardship. At 13, she lost her mother, and was booted out of boarding school when her father and new step-mom failed to foot the tuition bill. Down but not out, Hurston found work as a maid, serving an actress in a traveling theatrical company that gave her a taste of the world beyond Florida. In Baltimore, she lopped a decade off her age (a subtraction she maintained the rest of her days) to qualify for free public schooling that would allow her to complete her long-delayed high school education. From there, she worked her way through college, studied anthropology and folklore, and had her earliest works published in her school's paper. By 1920, the 29-year-old earned an associate degree from Howard University in Washington D.C. Five years later, she made the fateful move to New York City, where she eventually graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology from Barnard College after studying with the pioneering anthropologist Franz Boas. There, she also became a seminal and controversial icon of the Harlem Renaissance.

It's said that Hurston—with her brazen wit, affable humor, and charm—waltzed into the Harlem scene, easily befriending actress Ethel Waters, and poets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. Professor and fellow folklorist Sterling Brown once remarked of her appeal, "When Zora was there, she was the party."

Electrified by the thriving literary movement that strove to define the contemporary African-American experience, Hurston penned the personal essay "How It Feels To Be Colored Me," where she boldly declared

"I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife."

She and Hughes teamed up in 1930 to create a play for African-American actors that wouldn't use racial stereotypes. Regrettably, creative differences led to a falling out between the two that sunk The Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life In Three Acts before the Eatonville-set fable managed to be produced. But Hurston rebounded with her musical The Great Day, which premiered on Broadway January 10, 1932. Next, came her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, in 1934. The following year saw the release of a meticulously curated collection of African American oral folklore. Mules and Men became the greatest success she'd see in her lifetime, and yet it earned Hurston only $943.75.  

Her next book, 1937’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, was written during her anthropological expedition to Haiti to study voodoo. Reflecting its divorced author's life, it followed a forty-something African American woman's journey through three marriages and self-acceptance. While the mainstream press praised Hurston's anthropological eye and her writing "with her head as with her heart," she faced a backlash from some of her Harlem Renaissance peers.

Zora Neale Hurston drumming, 1937
Zora Neale Hurston drumming, 1937.
Library of Congress, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

As the movement evolved, Harlem Renaissance writers had been debating how African-Americans should present their people and culture in their art. Should they devotedly fight against the negative stereotypes long established by Caucasian writers? Should their work be penned as progressive propaganda intended to expose the racism of modern America as a means to provoke change? Or should African-Americans create without the constraints of a political or creative ideology? Hurston sided with the last group, and saw her novel criticized for its embrace of the vernacular of the black South, its exploration of female sexuality, and its absence of an overt political agenda. Literary critic Ralph Ellison called Their Eyes Were Watching God a "blight of calculated burlesque," while essayist Richard Wright jeered, "Miss Hurston seems to have no desire whatsoever to move in the direction of serious fiction." But fiction wasn't all she wrote. 

In 1938, Hurston published the anthropological study Tell My Horse; her aforementioned autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, came six years later. But following the release of her final novel Seraph on the Suwanee, Hurston's career fell into decline. Through the 1950s, she occasionally managed to secure some work as a journalist, scraping by with stints as a substitute teacher and sometimes maid. Despite a prolific output that included four novels, two folklore collections, an autobiography, and a wealth of short stories, essays, articles and plays, Hurston died penniless and alone in a welfare home on January 28, 1960; her body—dressed in a pink dressing gown and fuzzy slippers—was buried in an unmarked grave in Fort Pierce.

It was an especially cruel fate because she'd once appealed to activist W.E.B. Du Bois to create "a cemetery for the illustrious Negro dead" to assure that they'd never be discarded. Her rejected proposal read in part: "Let no Negro celebrity, no matter what financial condition they might be in at death, lie in inconspicuous forgetfulness. We must assume the responsibility of their graves being known and honored." 

This confident and rebellious creator's contribution to the Harlem Renaissance seemed certain to have doomed her to the realm of the forgotten. But in 1975, Alice Walker, who would go on to write the heralded novel The Color Purple, penned a legacy-shifting essay for Ms. magazine called "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston." The essay encouraged a new generation of readers to rediscover Hurston’s work. Their Eyes Were Watching God found a new life, and began popping up on school reading curriculums and earning reprintings in other languages, as did her other books. Mule Bone was finally published and staged in 1991. Historians scoured archives and uncovered a never-published manuscript of folklore Hurston had collected. Titled Every Tongue Got To Confess, it was published posthumously in 2001.

Not only were Hurston's works at long last given their due—so was she. In honor of the author who'd inspired her and countless others, Walker traveled to Florida to put a proper tombstone on Hurston's grave. It reads: "Zora Neale Hurston, A Genius of the South. Novelist, folklorist, anthropologist."

This story originally ran in 2016.

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