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.”

Sushruta, Ancient Indian Surgeon and Father of the Nose Job

If you were a petty criminal, a prisoner of war, or an adulterous woman in the ancient world, you might have had the tip of your nose cut off as a punishment [PDF]. But rather than walking around disfigured, if you had the means—and lived in ancient India—you might have had your nose reconstructed thanks to an ancient surgical method espoused by the Indian physician and surgeon Sushruta.

There's some debate around whether Sushruta was a real individual or a legendary figure. Said to have been the son of a sage who lived around 600 BCE, he's primarily known today for the classic treatise Sushruta Samhita, or Compendium of Sushruta. The treatise is considered one of the foremost achievements of Indian medicine, and went on to influence the West. Along with Charaka and Vagbhata—two other possibly legendary authors of key texts—Sushruta is honored in India as one of the "Triad of Ancients."

The Sushruta Samhita describes more than a thousand diseases (including a very early awareness of diabetes), and about 650 types of drugs. The text includes a special focus on surgery, which it considers the apex of the healing art. The roughly 300 surgical procedures it describes include cataract surgery, the removal of bladder stones, hernia repair, eye surgery, and Cesarean sections. The treatise also describes how to control bleeding, set broken bones, use wine and other drugs to anesthetize the patient, and employ large ants as wound clips (apparently, their strong mandibles can close a gash in lieu of stitches). The text also stresses the importance of cleanliness in both surgeons and their instruments—safeguards Europe wouldn’t adopt for the better part of two millennia.

But the most famous part of the text is its technique for repairing and recreating a nose, known today as reconstructive rhinoplasty. Sushruta recommended using a long, broad "leaf of a creeper" as a template for cutting a flap of skin from the cheek or forehead. After scarifying the flap with a knife, the skin was then placed over the missing nose, after which "the coolheaded physician should steadily tie it up with a bandage decent to look at," the text says. Two small pipes—reeds or tubes from the castor oil plant—were inserted into the nostrils to facilitate breathing. The nose was then dusted with medicinal powders, enveloped in cotton, and sprinkled with sesame oil.

An 1816 image from a nose surgery using the Indian method
An image from J.C. Carpue's "An account of two successful operations for restoring a lost nose," 1816

Sushruta’s knowledge took a long time traveling west. The Sushruta Samhita was translated into Arabic around the 8th century CE, and that version may have arrived in Europe before the Renaissance; Sushruta’s techniques were apparently known to surgeons in Italy in the 1400s and 1500s. The Indian method for repairing a nose was then lost to Western medicine for a couple of hundred years, although of course Indian surgeons continued to practice it.

Then, in 1793, two British surgeons observed the procedure being carried out on a cart driver who had been taken prisoner by a sultan in the Third Anglo-Mysore war, and an acquaintance of theirs published an account of the surgery in London's Gentleman's Magazine the following year. A British surgeon named Joseph Constantine Carpue read about the procedure, and practiced it on cadavers for 20 years before performing the operation (successfully) on a patient in 1814. His subsequent publication popularized the procedure in Europe, and by the 1830s the technique had made it to the United States.

Sushruta is widely honored in India today. The country boasts several statues of him, and his image is on the seal of the Association of Plastic Surgeons of India. A version of his procedure, often called the Indian method, is still one of the preferred ways of repairing noses around the world.

John Tradescant, Royal Gardener and Forefather of the Natural History Museum

Portrait of John Tradescant the Elder, attributed to Cornelis de Neve
Portrait of John Tradescant the Elder, attributed to Cornelis de Neve
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Two ribs of a whale, a dragon’s egg, the hand of a mermaid, and a picture made entirely from feathers: These were just a few of the items displayed at the curiosities museum that John Tradescant the Elder opened around 1630.

Tradescant is best known for two accomplishments: being the forefather of the modern English garden, and opening the first public museum. He collected seeds and plant samples on his extensive travels, then incorporated these flowers into the envy-inspiring gardens he was hired to create for the British nobility. That would be a noteworthy accomplishment on its own, but Tradescant is also remembered for his cabinet of curiosities, which eventually grew to become the nucleus of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, England.

Not much is known about the Tradescant the Elder’s early years. Thought to have been born around 1570, he made his first mark in the historical record when he married in 1607. Two years later, he was appointed gardener to Robert Cecil, the first Earl of Salisbury. Tradescant continued to work for the Cecil family for about six years, then took a job with Edward, Lord Wotton, for another eight years. Lord Wotton released him for two major collecting journeys: one as part of a diplomatic mission to the Russian Arctic in 1618, which resulted in him introducing the larch tree, a valuable timber source, to England; and one as part of a 1621 expedition against Algerian pirates. Although the mission failed to do much about the pirates, Tradescant did succeed in bringing back samples of gladioli, wild pomegranate, and Syringa persica—better known as lilac, which became a favorite in English gardens.

Tradescant then served George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, for five years, before the duke was assassinated by a disgruntled army officer and King Charles I himself summoned Tradescant's services. The king appointed Tradescant the Keeper of his Master’s Gardens, Vines, and Silkworms at Oatlands Palace, an estate occupied by his queen, Henrietta Maria. Tradescant would become celebrated as the gardener to the "Rose and Lily Queen."

On Tradescant's travels, he tended to favor trees and flowers that looked interesting above those with a pleasant aroma, since he had no sense of smell. From his trips to France, the Netherlands, and Belgium, he returned with tulips, anemones, irises, clematis vines, and poppies. He also began actively seeking out curiosities, such as "a goose which has grown in Scotland on a tree," and "the passion of Christ carved very daintily on a plumstone," according to one 1638 accounting of his collection. (He also collected what we might today consider more run-of-the-mill cultural artifacts, like clothing and weapons.) Aside from his own collecting, he contacted British trading ships and asked merchants and diplomats around the world to find him “All Maner of Beasts & Fowels & Birds Alyve.”

Tradescant first began displaying his collection of oddities—fondly known as The Ark—at his home in Lambeth, London in 1628. The museum was a chance for Londoners to see creatures previously unknown to them—animals like salamanders and pelicans were on view—and to touch fantastic relics, such as wood that supposedly came from the cross used in the crucifixion of Jesus. Like other cabinets of curiosity of its era, it combined scientific curiosities and mythological artifacts without strict organizing principles: A brightly colored parrot might be displayed next to a gourd, a precious coin, and some artistically arranged shells. At some point, the collection also incorporated a dodo, described in a 1656 accounting as being a “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big." (While most of the specimen was disposed of due to rot in the mid-18th century, the head—now the only soft tissue dodo specimen known to exist—and several other parts of the specimen are currently in the collection of Oxford's Museum of Natural History.)

Tradescant charged visitors sixpence to view his curiosities, which became one of London's most popular and famous attractions for nearly half a century (it was especially popular with schoolchildren). One early visitor praised it as a place "where a Man might in one daye behold and collecte into one place more curiosities than hee should see if hee spent all his life in Travell."

Although the museum was a success, it was not a full-time project. Tradescant also continued to garden for nobility until his death in 1638; his last project, undertaken a year before he died, was a Physic Garden for herbal remedies at Oxford.

Tradescant is called the "Elder" because he also had a well-known son, John Tradescant the Younger (1608–1662), who carried on his work. The younger botanist also gardened for nobles, traveled the world, and collected both plants and curiosities. In 1638, he assumed his father’s title as Keeper of his Majesty’s Gardens, Vines, and Silkworms at Oatlands Palace in Surrey. All the while he kept collecting, adding to the Tradescant legacy.

Tradescant the Younger had a son he hoped would carry on the family tradition, but his heir died at 19. Heartbroken, he deeded the collection to a friend and antiques aficionado, Elias Ashmole. It was a decision they came to regret after a variety of squabbles and a court case, which upheld Ashmole's right to the collection. Ashmole paid for and helped compile a catalog of the Tradescant objects in 1656, the first printed catalog of a museum collection in England.

Detail of the Tradescant tomb St Mary-at-Lambeth, London
Detail of the Tradescant tomb St Mary-at-Lambeth, London
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Ashmole donated the Tradescant curiosities to his old school, the University of Oxford, in the 1670s, alongside some items he had acquired himself. The museum built to exhibit the whole collection officially opened in June 1683, and remains open today.

But it's not the only museum inspired by the work of the Tradescants. The church where the Tradescants (both Elder and Younger) are buried is now known as the Museum of Garden History; it was initially created to preserve the their magnificent tomb. Carved with images from their travels and collections, it incorporates a long epitaph attributed to John Aubrey that describes their curiosities as "a world of wonders in one closet shut."

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