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.”

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.

Clarence Birdseye, the Father of the Frozen Foods Industry

Clarence Birdseye at his desk.
Clarence Birdseye at his desk.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Whether it's frozen waffles for breakfast or a bag of frozen peas to supplement dinner, you probably take the availability, affordability, and convenience of frozen food for granted. Yet things like tasty frozen pizzas were once a pipe dream, and we can thank entrepreneur Clarence Birdseye for making it possible to buy high-quality frozen foods year-round.

Call of the Wild

Born in Brooklyn in 1886, Birdseye was fascinated by the outdoors. As a child, he loved reading about adventurous hunters and trappers, and taught himself taxidermy. After graduating from high school in Montclair, New Jersey, he briefly worked as an inspector for the New York City Sanitation Department and as an office boy on Wall Street. He then started college at Amherst, where he studied biology, and where his fellow students teased him for his passionate curiosity about frogs, rats, and bugs.

After he was forced to drop out of Amherst due to limited finances, he bounced from job to job: Birdseye traveled to Arizona and New Mexico to study animal populations as an assistant naturalist for the Department of Agriculture’s U.S. Biological Survey; worked at an insurance company; recorded the amount of snow that New York City removed from the streets after snowstorms; and, in the summer of 1910, collected ticks to research Rocky Mountain spotted fever, a potentially fatal tick-borne disease.

Then, in 1912, Birdseye traveled to Labrador, where he became involved in the fur trade. It was an experience that would change his life—and the world.

He noticed that the fish frozen by the Inuit tasted better once thawed and had a more appealing texture than any frozen food he had eaten before. After observing their techniques and conducting his own experiments, he eventually realized that the cold temperatures in Labrador—often -30° F or colder—froze food instantly, preserving its taste, texture, appearance, and nutrients. With that, Birdseye had the insight necessary for turning tasty frozen food into a business. He would later say, "Quick freezing was conceived, born, and nourished on a strange combination of ingenuity, stick-to-itiveness, sweat, and good luck."

A Cool Idea

Frozen food was available to Americans in the early 20th century, but it was far from favored: Because items were frozen slowly just around 32° F and in large quantities, usually over the course of several days, the food was often mushy and tasted unappealing. (In fact, it was so bad that New York banned it from state prisons as inhumane.) Birdseye knew he could do better.

After years of experiments, Birdseye finally hit the bullseye: He developed two methods of flash-freezing food that would prevent large ice crystals from forming and degrading the food's quality. Each involved putting packages of food between metal—first belts chilled with calcium chloride, then hollow plates filled with an ammonia-based refrigerant—which kept taste and texture intact by allowing only tiny ice crystals to form. In 1924, he helped found the General Seafoods Company, which became Birds Eye Frosted Food Company, and by 1930, after a purchase by General Foods, he was peddling his frozen food in supermarkets, delighting customers with frozen meat, fish, oysters, raspberries, peas, and spinach.

In the 1940s, Birdseye was able to distribute his frozen food nationally by using refrigerated boxcars. Besides freezing, packaging, and marketing his frozen food, he also built a distribution infrastructure to transport it to retail stores across the country. World War II was a boon for business: Rations on canned foods—which were sent to soldiers overseas—meant that people purchased more frozen foods.

A Legacy of Invention

Besides establishing his frozen foods company, Birdseye was a prolific inventor who filed hundreds of patents for everything from an infrared heat lamps to a recoilless harpoon gun for whales. Birdseye also spent time in Peru to develop a method of quickly converting sugar cane waste into paper pulp. When he wasn’t working, he enjoyed bird watching and spending time with Eleanor, his wife of more than four decades. He died of heart failure in 1956 in New York City.

Today, nearly a century after Birdseye began selling frozen food, his company, Birds Eye, still sells frozen vegetables. And although food trends have been shifting from frozen to fresh, local foods, many people in the world don’t have year-round access to fresh produce. That means frozen food—and Birdseye’s contributions to it—won’t become obsolete anytime soon.

Additional source: Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man

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