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
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.”

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March of Dimes/Library of Congress via Wikimedia // Public Domain
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Retrobituaries
Virginia Apgar, the Woman Whose Name Saves Newborns
March of Dimes/Library of Congress via Wikimedia // Public Domain
March of Dimes/Library of Congress via Wikimedia // Public Domain

How important is Dr. Virginia Apgar to the modern practice of obstetrics? Here is the way the National Library of Medicine’s website puts it: “[E]very baby born in a modern hospital anywhere in the world is looked at first through the eyes of Dr. Virginia Apgar.”

Apgar created a quick and reliable way to determine the health of a newborn baby, an examination that is usually referred to today as a baby’s Apgar test. Before her test, invented in 1952, there was no objective way to determine the health of a newborn, and babies were given little medical attention immediately after birth. Problems often escaped notice until they became critical.

To determine an Apgar score, a nurse, midwife, or physician examines the baby for five criteria—skin color, heart rate, reflexes, muscle tone, and breathing—at both one minute and five minutes after birth (and sometimes in further follow-up tests). Each criterion is given zero, one, or two points. A score over seven is considered normal. A score below three is seriously low. Babies often have lower scores at one minute after birth, but by five minutes have perked up and score in the normal range.

Because a common mnemonic for the criteria uses the letters APGAR (appearance, pulse, grimace, activity, and respiration) to create a “backronym,” or retrofitted acronym, many people do not realize Apgar is an eponym—named after a person. Apgar herself was often amused when people were surprised to find she was a real individual.

But in person, Virginia Apgar was hard to forget. She was a pioneer in several fields of medicine, helping to establish anesthesiology as a medical specialty, working to study and improve obstetrical anesthesia, and advancing the study of birth defects. She helped organize and administer the first Division of Anesthesia at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons, her alma mater, and became the first woman to be a full professor there.

As a teacher of medicine, Apgar was known for her uninhibited sense of humor and could talk about anything without embarrassment. Because her own tailbone was at an odd angle, she would have medical students feel for it to help them learn how to administer spinal anesthetics. She always traveled with a resuscitation kit that included a penknife and an endotracheal tube (a plastic tube inserted into the windpipe to ventilate the lungs). "Nobody, but nobody, is going to stop breathing on me!" she reportedly declared.

In the late 1950s, after Apgar had already made a name for herself with her work in anesthesiology and the creation of the Apgar score, she turned her attention to the study and prevention of birth defects. She was asked to join what was then the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis-March of Dimes (now simply the March of Dimes), which started researching and advocating for those with birth defects after it met its original goal of creating a vaccine against polio. As a director and later vice president at the March of Dimes, Apgar championed research that showed how factors such as infectious diseases, radiation exposure, substance abuse, and chemical exposure could cause birth defects. In her years with the organization, she also traveled the country speaking and calling attention to the issue of birth defects.

Outside of medicine, Apgar was a gardener, fly fisherman, and took flying lessons. Throughout her life, she was an excellent amateur violinist who often played in chamber ensembles. She even learned to make stringed instruments, including violins, a viola, and a cello.

In fact, her work as an amateur luthier even led her to a short career as a thief. In 1957, a musician friend noticed that a maple shelf in a phone booth at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center would make an excellent back for a viola. The friend and Apgar set out to take the shelf at night and replace it with another piece of wood, which they managed to stain to just the right color. But the piece they brought was slightly too long, and needed to be shortened. While her friend went into a nearby ladies’ room to do the sawing, Apgar guarded the door. The piece became the back of Apgar’s viola, and was one of four instruments she handcrafted that were played by pediatricians at a 1994 ceremony to honor a commemorative U.S. stamp with Apgar’s image. (The instruments were later donated to Columbia, where they can still be rented.)

Virginia Apgar died of liver disease at the age of 65 in 1974, but her name lives on around the world—even though many don’t know it—in the life-saving score she designed for infants.

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Photo Illustration Mental Floss. Portrait: Paul Fearn, Alamy. Background images: iStock
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Retrobituaries
Laura de Force Gordon, Pioneering Newspaper Publisher, Lawyer, and Suffragist
Photo Illustration Mental Floss. Portrait: Paul Fearn, Alamy. Background images: iStock
Photo Illustration Mental Floss. Portrait: Paul Fearn, Alamy. Background images: iStock

Laura de Force Gordon's life was filled with firsts. A dedicated writer and reporter, she was the first woman to publish a daily newspaper in the United States. She was also one of the nation's first female attorneys—although it took several determined campaigns for her to earn the right to practice. She's also credited with launching the women’s suffrage movement in California. Yet her legacy is not without controversy, and an intriguing discovery long after her death has led to speculation about her personal life.

Born Laura de Force in Erie County, Pennsylvania, on August 17, 1838, she was a Spiritualist before she was a feminist. The 19th century religious movement focused on communication with spirits and ghosts of the deceased, and de Force gained a following as a trance speaker—someone who could channel a spirit. She spent her early adulthood traveling through her native Pennsylvania and New England, giving lectures on a variety of topics including Spiritualism, temperance, and women’s suffrage.

She met her husband, Dr. Charles H. Gordon, while working as a trance speaker, and the couple decided to move to Nevada, and then California, in the late 1860s. She continued to give lectures on Spiritualism, the abolition of alcohol, and women’s rights along the way, although not without some pushback: Occasionally, men in the audience would stand up and try to debate her, but “she would turn it on them every time and the audience would roar,” according to the Lodi Historian.

Like a number of women—including Victoria Woodhull, often credited as the first woman to run for president of the United States—Gordon used her platform as a trance speaker and medium as a launching pad for a career as a women’s rights campaigner. She gave California’s first recorded speech on women and the vote in San Francisco in 1868, then helped found the California Woman’s Suffrage Society in 1870, often speaking before the state legislature on the society’s behalf. She would later serve as its president from 1884 to 1894.

Her career as a newspaperwoman began as a side effect of a failed campaign for a state senate seat. In 1871, just a year after she settled in California, the Independent Party of San Joaquin nominated her as their candidate. Women couldn’t yet vote, making a win highly unlikely, but the run was meant to make a point. Yet the male-dominated newspapers of the region didn’t take her campaign—or her work for women’s rights—seriously. Most just ignored it.

Gordon's solution was to purchase her own newspaper, the Stockton Leader. Her career as a newspaperwoman didn't end there: She converted the Stockton Leader to a daily in 1874 (in the process becoming the first woman to publish a daily paper in the nation); edited the Daily Democrat in Oakland, California; helped her sister Gertie found a weekly newspaper of her own; and served as a regular contributor to several California newspapers as well as the New Northwest of Portland, Oregon. Her status as a reporter and publisher granted her entry into a number of venues that would otherwise be closed to her as a woman, such as the State Assembly, where she had a press desk as a correspondent for the Sacramento Bee.

"LADY LAWYERS"

But Gordon wasn’t content to remain a journalist. She wanted a career in the courtroom. In order to make that happen, though, a number of things needed to change—starting with a California law that barred anyone but white males from being admitted to the state bar. Gordon teamed up with fellow writer and activist Clara Shortridge Foltz, and the pair worked together with state lawmakers to change the rule. Their work culminated in the Woman Lawyer’s Bill in March 1878, which went beyond its name to allow admission of “any citizen or person” to the bar.

That was just the first hurdle Gordon and Foltz had to leap over to begin their law careers. Although they were now technically permitted to work as attorneys, and no specific rule prevented their law training, law schools could still prevent them—in practice, if not in theory—from getting the education they needed for successful careers.

The saga began when Foltz registered to attend classes at Hastings College of the Law, one of the first law schools in California. Her first day was full of disruptions, as the male students imitated her every move as part of a hazing ritual. On the second day, she was blocked from classes by a janitor and had to get a note from the dean before she was allowed in.

On the third day, Gordon joined her friend, and the two vowed to support each other in their attempts to get a legal education. This lasted only a day before the school’s Board of Directors asked them not to return. “There was no written explanation for the exclusion, but Dean Hastings told [Foltz] and Gordon that their presence, particularly their rustling skirts, was bothering the other scholars,” writes Barbara Babcock in her book Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz.

A photo of Laura de Force Gordon
Ralph Lea

The pair decided to fight. They continued to attend lectures until physically barred from the classrooms by their male classmates. Babcock writes that "they came to class one day to find the men blocking their entrance, staring at them in silent hostility."

In February 1879, they took the fight to the courts and the state legislature. Gordon and Foltz devised a single-line amendment to the state constitution, which Gordon sent to her allies at the second California constitutional convention, then in progress at the time. It read, “No person shall, on account of sex, be disqualified from entering upon or pursuing any lawful business, vocation or profession.” It was soon adopted by the convention.

At the same time, with advice from Gordon’s friend David Terry, a legal expert from Stockton, California, each woman filed a lawsuit against the college’s Board of Directors. The lawsuits relied on the fact that the law school was part of the state’s coeducational, taxpayer-funded public university system and should be required to admit the pair under those conditions. Gordon filed in the California Supreme Court, while Foltz filed in the state’s trial court. When the Supreme Court declined to take up the case, Gordon joined Foltz in the trial court.

By many accounts, the pair argued their case eloquently and skillfully. At the end of the trial, even Delos Lake, one of the attorneys representing the law school’s board, was convinced that they would be good attorneys. “If fair ladies were to be lawyers, [I] would rather have them as associates than opponents,” he said—apparently meaning he didn't ever want to be on the other side of the dock from them again. The judge ruled in their favor, as did the California Supreme Court on appeal, and they were admitted to the college.

For both, it was an enormous victory, and they became the first two women admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court of California.

Once she obtained admission to the bar, Gordon gave up publishing newspapers to practice law (though she remained active in reporting on suffrage). She was especially known for her murder trial defenses, and was made an honorary member of the Royal Italian Literary Society of Rome after her successful defense of an Italian immigrant facing execution in one particular trial. Legend says the Southern Pacific Railroad gave her a lifetime pass after she did some exceptional legal work for the company. She even faced off against her friend and law school ally Foltz, who worked as a prosecutor, in the trial of confessed murderer George Wheeler—one of the few trials Gordon lost. Six years after being admitted to the California bar, she was admitted to the Bar of the U.S. Supreme Court, becoming only the second woman in the U.S., after Belva Lockwood of Washington D.C., to gain that qualification.

"A LOVER OF HER OWN SEX"

Around 1880, Gordon suffered a devastating blow in her personal life. She found out that her husband had lied to her for nearly two decades: He had never divorced his first wife, who he had abandoned in Scotland when he traveled to the U.S. When Gordon found out about her husband’s transgressions—supposedly after detectives hired by his first wife tracked him down—she divorced him, referring to herself as a widow for the remainder of her life.

Portrait of Laura de Force Gordon
Congress of Women, Wikimedia // Public Domain

In 1979, more than 70 years after her death, Gordon turned heads again, this time when a 100-year-old time capsule buried in San Francisco’s Washington Square was opened. In it was a copy of a travel book Gordon had written, The Great Geysers of California and How to Reach Them, which she had donated for the time capsule in 1879, around the same time as her divorce. On the book she had written, “If this little book should see the light after its 100 years of entombment, I would like its readers to know that the author was a lover of her own sex and devoted the best years of her life in striving for the political equality and social and moral elevation of women.”

The inscription has inspired debate. Some have interpreted this to be a declaration that she was a lesbian, while others interpret her words as a more platonic statement in favor of women’s rights. Gordon’s life offers few clues; although she never married again after her divorce, there is no surviving evidence that she had any romantic relationships with other women, either.

Gordon was not a perfect champion of rights for all. Like other members of the Democratic Party in the late 1800s, she spoke out against Chinese immigrants to the West Coast, who she said were taking jobs and opportunities from white American citizens. Gordon gave a number of anti-Chinese lectures, and also made comments—including during the lawsuit against Hastings—condemning the idea that Chinese men should be allowed to do anything white women were barred from. The extent to which these attitudes were a matter of personal conviction or political expediency remains a source of debate.

In 1901, Gordon retired to Lodi, but her retirement was short-lived. She went back on the lecture circuit again in 1906, traveling until she caught a cold in Los Angeles. She died on April 5, 1907, after a brief battle with pneumonia, at the age of 68. Women in California gained the right to vote in 1911—just four years after her death.

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