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.

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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.

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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.”

Amazon's Best Black Friday Deals: Tech, Video Games, Kitchen Appliances, Clothing, and More

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Black Friday is finally here, and Amazon is offering great deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.

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Instant Pot/Amazon

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Sony

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Apple/Amazon

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Amazon

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Alice Dunnigan, the First Black Woman Journalist to Get White House Press Credentials

Schlesinger Library, RIAS, Harvard University // No Known Copyright Restrictions
Schlesinger Library, RIAS, Harvard University // No Known Copyright Restrictions

Alice Dunnigan’s birthplace of Russellville, Kentucky, is more than 700 miles from Washington, D.C. And for Black women journalists in the early 20th century, the dream of heading to the Capitol and covering national politics at the highest level seemed even more distant. But Dunnigan overcame racism, sexism, and other obstacles to make history as the first Black woman credentialed to cover the White House. Dunnigan, whose grandparents were born into slavery, would combat discrimination and champion freedom of the press while covering three U.S. presidents.

A Long Road to Writing Success

Born on April 27, 1906, Alice Allison Dunnigan grew up in a cottage on a red clay hill outside Russellville, a former Confederate Civil War stronghold (population 5000). Dunnigan’s father was a tenant farmer, while her mother took in laundry. Their precocious daughter learned to read before entering the first grade, and she began writing for the Owensboro Enterprise when she was just 13. After graduating from the segregated Knob City High School in 1923, she completed a teaching course at Kentucky State University.

During Dunnigan’s 18-year career as a Todd County teacher, her annual salary never topped $800. Her aspirations went beyond teaching: She wrote “Kentucky Fact Sheets,” highlighting Black contributions to state history that the official curriculum omitted, and took journalism classes at Tennessee A&I College (now Tennessee State University). Her two marriages to tobacco farmer Walter Dickenson in 1925 and childhood pal Charles Dunnigan in 1932 did not pan out. To pursue her career, she made the tough decision to have her parents raise Robert, her son from her second marriage, for 17 years. In 1935, she moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where she worked for Black-owned newspapers like the Louisville Defender.

With the Jim Crow era still in force and World War II raging, Dunnigan made her next big move to Washington, D.C., in 1942. Vying to escape poverty, she joined the federal civil service and earned $1440 a year as a War Labor Board clerk. Yet even four years later, when she was working as an economist after studying at Howard University and commanding a $2600 salary—double that of the average Black woman in the nation's capital—journalism kept calling her name.

Dunnigan became a Washington, D.C., correspondent in 1946 for the Associated Negro Press (ANP), the first Black-owned wire service, supplying more than 100 newspapers nationwide. It was her ticket to covering national politics.

Fearlessly Covering the White House

Dunnigan’s passion for journalism didn’t boost her bank account. Claude A. Barnett, her ANP publisher, gave her a starting monthly salary of $100—half of what his male writers earned. “Race and sex were twin strikes against me,” Dunnigan said later. “I’m not sure which was the hardest to break down.” To stay afloat financially, she often pawned her watch and shoveled coal, subsisting on basic food like hog ears and greens. To relax, she drank Bloody Marys and smoked her pipe.

Named ANP’s bureau chief in 1947, Dunnigan forged ahead as a political reporter despite Barnett’s skepticism. “For years we have tried to get a man accredited to the Capitol Galleries and have not succeeded,” Barnett told her. “What makes you think that you—a woman—can accomplish this feat?” Though the ANP had never endorsed her application for a Capitol press pass, Dunnigan's repeated efforts finally paid off. She was approved for a Capitol press pass in July 1947, and swiftly followed up with a successful request for White House media credentials.

In 1948, Dunnigan became a full-fledged White House correspondent. When she was invited to join the press corps accompanying President Harry S. Truman’s re-election campaign, Barnett declined to pay her way—so Dunnigan took out a loan and went anyway. As one of just three Black reporters and the only Black woman covering Truman’s whistle-stop tour out West, she experienced highs and lows.

In Cheyenne, Wyoming, when Dunnigan tried to walk with other journalists behind Truman’s motorcade, a military officer, assuming she was an interloper, pushed her back toward the spectators. Another journalist had to intervene on her behalf. Afterward, Truman found her typing in her compartment on the presidential Ferdinand Magellan train and said, “I heard you had a little trouble. Well, if anything else happens, please let me know.”

Dunnigan later landed a scoop in Missoula, Montana, when Truman got off the train at night in his dressing gown to address a crowd of students. Her headline read: “Pajama Clad President Defends Civil Rights at Midnight.”

Her relationship with President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s was more contentious. The two-term Republican president disliked her persistent questions about hiring practices that discriminated against Black Americans, segregation at military base schools, and other civil rights issues. Max Rabb, an Eisenhower advisor, told her she should clear her questions with him in advance to get better answers. She agreed once, but never again. Subsequently, “Honest Ike” ignored Dunnigan at press conferences for years, despite her status as the first Black member of the Women’s National Press Club (1955).

When President John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, he called on Dunnigan eight minutes into his first press conference. She asked about protection for Black tenant farmers who had been evicted from their Tennessee homes simply for voting in the previous election. JFK replied, “I can state that this administration will pursue the problem of providing that protection, with all vigor.” Jet magazine then published this headline: “Kennedy In, Negro Reporter Gets First Answer in Two Years.”

New Career, New Achievements

Later in 1961, Dunnigan found a new calling. President Kennedy appointed her to his Committee on Equal Opportunity, designed to level the playing field for Americans seeking federal government jobs. As an educational consultant, Dunnigan toured the U.S. and gave speeches. In 1967, she switched over to the Council on Youth Opportunity, where she spent four years as an editor, writing articles in support of young Black people.

After retiring, she self-published her 1974 autobiography, A Black Woman’s Experience: From Schoolhouse to White House. Dunnigan died at age 77 in 1983, but her legacy lives on. In 2013, she was posthumously inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame. CNN’s April Ryan, Lauretta Charlton of the New York Times, and others have hailed her as an inspiration.

In 2018, a 500-pound bronze statue of Dunnigan was unveiled at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Today, it stands outside the Struggles for Equality and Emancipation in Kentucky (SEEK) Museum in her native Russellville—a silent but powerful tribute to a woman who was never short on words.