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Courtesy of Dartmouth College Library
Courtesy of Dartmouth College Library

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
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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
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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.”

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Courtesy Daniel Guggisberg ©, used with permission.
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Retrobituaries
Caroline Weldon, 19th Century Indigenous Rights Advocate and Sitting Bull's Secretary
The only known photograph of Caroline Weldon (seated), taken in 1915 with her friend Aline Estoppey
The only known photograph of Caroline Weldon (seated), taken in 1915 with her friend Aline Estoppey
Courtesy Daniel Guggisberg ©, used with permission.

It was December 15, 1890 and Sitting Bull was dead. The Indian police who had shot and killed him earlier that day were tearing through his cabins when they found two of the chief's wives and several other women hiding his son under a mattress, a portrait of the dead Hunkpapa Lakota leader hanging on the wall. Though they had been ordered not to touch anything, one of the policemen tore the painting down, using his rifle to smash the frame and his fist to punch a hole in the canvas. Lieutenant Matthew F. Steele, a cavalry member among those sent to assist the policemen, wrestled the painting—done, he later recalled, by a "Mrs. Weldon, a woman from the East"—away before it could be destroyed completely. Steele bought the painting from Sitting Bull's wives for $2 and kept it for six decades, donating it to the State Historical Society of North Dakota in 1953.

But who was the “Mrs. Weldon” who had journeyed all the way from the East to the Standing Rock Reservation to paint it? As in Steele's recollection, she is often a footnote to history—treated like a passing phantom when mentioned at all. Yet Caroline Weldon is worth remembering as an activist who set out alone to try and help Sitting Bull and his people. While her story as a white woman attempting to guide indigenous affairs is not uncomplicated, what she did was rare both in terms of 19th century activism and for a single woman in the Victorian era. Her courage is reflected in the nickname the Sioux gave her: “Woman Walking Ahead."

Sitting Bull, 1881
Sitting Bull, 1881
O.S. Goff/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The woman who would become Caroline Weldon was born Susanna Karolina Faesch in a suburb of Basel, Switzerland, in 1844. Her parents divorced when she was almost 5 years old, and she arrived in the United States with her mother in the 1850s. She grew up in Brooklyn, where she eventually married a fellow Swiss named Claudius Bernhard Schlatter. It was an unhappy marriage—at one point she left him for another man—and they divorced in 1883.

As she "struggled to endure her loveless marriage," Eileen Pollack writes in her book Woman Walking Ahead, the budding activist immersed herself in reading about the news of the West, particularly Sitting Bull’s leadership of the Sioux in Standing Rock. After her divorce, she joined the National Indian Defense Association (NIDA), formed by activist Dr. Thomas Bland with his wife Cora in response to the controversial Dawes Act. The act, passed in 1887, broke up indigenous land into individual allotments—often seen as a key step in the federal government's forced assimilation of Native Americans. It was sometime in the 1880s, according to researcher Daniel Guggisberg, that she also invented a new name for herself: Caroline Weldon. By then, she'd also had a son, named Christie, out of wedlock.

In 1889, accompanied only by Christie, Weldon left Brooklyn and went west to offer her support of Sitting Bull’s opposition to the Dawes Act in person. Although Sitting Bull had been well-known as a commander at the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, by the 1880s, aside from a stint with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, his life was confined to the Standing Rock reservation. When Weldon arrived in June of 1889, he was suffering from a near-fatal bout of pneumonia.

For several months after arriving at Standing Rock, Weldon acted as Sitting Bull’s secretary. She also painted four portraits of him, and offered financial support to him and his family, drawing on a small inheritance from her mother. Weldon would later describe her impression of Sitting Bull: "As a friend […] sincere and true, as a patriot devoted and incorruptible. As a husband and father, affectionate and considerate. As a host, courteous and hospitable to the last degree.”

And while Sitting Bull seems to have appreciated her actions, not everyone did. Indian Agent James McLaughlin—one of the individuals authorized to interact with Native American tribes on behalf of the U.S. government, and who would order Sitting Bull’s fatal arrest—openly detested Weldon for her meddling. The press was also unkind, calling her “Sitting Bull’s white squaw.” One 1889 headline in the Bismarck Weekly Tribune crowed: "A New Jersey Widow Falls Victim to Sitting Bull's Charms.”

But any cooperation between Weldon and Sitting Bull would be interrupted by the dawn of the Ghost Dance in the Dakotas. The movement was sparked by a Paiute man named Wovoka, who prophesied in 1889 that the circular dance would help return the dead to the land of the living, where they would fight and force the white people off the land they'd stolen before uniting the indigenous people in peace. At a time when the Dawes Act was dividing ancestral land, and after decades of federal genocide, the Ghost Dance quickly became a phenomenon.

Weldon correctly assessed that Sitting Bull’s participation in the Ghost Dance would be used to arrest or kill him; she incorrectly perceived the spread of the dance as a Mormon plot. (The Mormons had been active in attempting to convert indigenous people as they moved into western land in the 1800s.) The growing tension around Weldon’s advocacy against the dance eventually led to her expulsion from the reservation.

She pled in a letter addressed to "My Dakotas": "Your dead friends will not come back to you. Save your money and take care of the living.” According to Ian Frazier in his 1989 book Great Plains, Sitting Bull tried proposing marriage to her—an attempt she rebuffed. She "finally left Sitting Bull's camp in disgust," and Sitting Bull drove her to the nearby town of Cannonball in his wagon.

The final years of Weldon's life were bleak. Only a month before Sitting Bull was killed on December 15, 1890, her son died of an infection. After spending some time in Kansas City, she came home to Brooklyn, falling into obscurity as the years went on. One night in 1921, a candle caught her apartment on fire, and she died on March 15 from her burns. Today, she’s buried in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, near an obelisk marked Valentiny, her stepfather’s name.

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Christine Granville, World War II Special Agent
Christine Granville circa 1950
Christine Granville circa 1950
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Allies’ success in World War II owes a great debt to the women who outfoxed, out-shot, and outran their male counterparts across the globe. Perhaps most intriguing of these women, although little-known today, is Christine Granville, the Polish-born daughter of a ne’er-do-well count and a Jewish mother, whose real-life romantic entanglements, fearless sorties, and close escapes are enough for reams of dramatic stories.

Born Krystyna Skarbek in Warsaw in 1908 to an aristocratic, but broke, family of Polish nobility on her father’s side and a successful, but socially limited, Jewish banking family on her mother’s side, Christine, as she later came to be known, seemed destined to be able to handle whatever situation life threw at her. Likeable, beautiful, and driven by a strong sense of fun, she used her resources before the war to become an expert equestrian, a top-notch skier, and even a national beauty queen.

But her ancestry meant she would never quite fit in. According to Clare Mulley, the author of a biography about Granville called The Spy Who Loved, it would be this outsider foundation that later drove Granville to accomplish great things. As Mulley explained to Mental Floss, “although beautiful and well-connected, her mother had been born Jewish, and Christine was never fully accepted in the higher echelons of Polish society.”

The Nazi invasion of Poland in the fall of 1939 was, of course, a game-changer. Trapped in London with her diplomat husband, Jerzy Giżycki, and desperate to help the war effort in any way she could, Granville found a contact in the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and pressed herself into service. She became Britain's first—and longest-serving—female special agent during World War II. Her facility for languages, her intelligence, and her calm under pressure all proved to be great assets in her espionage work, as she made her way in and out of Nazi-held territories. Even her long-time interest in skiing proved useful, allowing her to sneak into war-torn Poland by traversing the mountains just ahead of enemy soldiers.

Along the way there would be close calls, romantic intrigues, and triumphs that would become the stuff of spy novels. These included her escape from a Gestapo interrogation by faking a case of tuberculosis: Spies had been informed that Germans were terrified of catching the contagious disease, so Granville simply manufactured some symptoms during her detention by biting her tongue until it bled and then “coughing up” blood in the presence of her captors. Afraid to have someone in her condition in their custody, she was promptly let go and returned to her spying duties.

According to Mulley, Christine had one particularly impressive feat among her many accomplishments. “Christine became legendary within SOE [Britain's Special Operations Executive] for her single-handed rescue of three fellow agents from Gestapo prison, just hours before they were due to be shot in July 1944. One of the men was her lover, Francis Cammaerts, the leader of SOE in the south west of France, who went on to help coordinate French resistance support for the Allied troops arriving to liberate occupied France from the south.”

Active in no less than three theaters of war, Granville survived six years of dangerous fieldwork in an occupation where the average life span was six weeks. As a reward, she was decorated by both Britain and France. Sadly, however, her story ends with a twist that would put even writers like John le Carré to shame. She was killed by a man whose romantic overtures she spurned. As Mulley explains, “Christine met her untimely end in a south London hotel in 1952. Her murderer claimed that ‘to kill is the final possession.’ He was wrong. Nobody possessed Christine, not her father, not either of her husbands, and none of her many lovers. If anything, she was possessed by her drive for freedom.”

Her legacy, even if little-known and under-sung, endures. Thought to have inspired at least two of James Bond author Ian Fleming’s characters (the author never met her, but he may have heard of her exploits through his own MI5 contacts), Granville remains a figure who deserves further exploration. Mulley argues that she deserves more than the sensationalist treatment of paperbacks and action movies, adding that “her legacy lies in her inspirational example of a Pole fighting for Britain and her countries’ allies, and as a woman serving so effectively behind enemy lines. All too often women in the resistance are presented in romantic terms, as brave and beautiful. Christine had both these qualities, but she also made a hugely significant contribution to the Allied war effort."

A version of this article originally ran in 2016.

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