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.”

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Audrey Munson, America’s First Supermodel—And First Nude Movie Star

Audrey Munson photographed in 1915.
Audrey Munson photographed in 1915.
Arnold Genthe, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

While you might not know Audrey Munson’s name, you’ve almost certainly seen her likeness somewhere. Munson’s figure can be found in bronze, copper, and marble across New York City, and, in fact, all over the country—Missouri and Wisconsin each have a statue of her atop their State Capitol buildings, for example.

The model posed for some 200 artists throughout her brief career, earning her nicknames like “Miss Manhattan” and “the American Venus,” along with a reputation as the most well-known muse of early 20th-century America. But after an attempt at a film career fizzled out, Munson struggled to reclaim her place among New York’s artist elite. Even as Munson’s image lives on in sculptures and other works, her story is an often overlooked part of art history.

An Ideal Chorus Girl

Munson photographed by Arnold Genthe in 1915.Arnold Genthe Collection, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Audrey Marie Munson was born on June 8, 1891, in Rochester, New York. Her father, Edgar Munson, was a real estate broker who was descended from one of the founders of New Haven, Connecticut, and her mother, Kittie Mahoney, was the daughter of Irish immigrants. Familial bliss, however, was short-lived—the couple separated when Audrey was only 6, after Kittie caught wind of Edgar’s affair. They divorced two years later.

After the split, Kittie and Audrey began a new life in Providence, Rhode Island. Kittie worked as a boarding house keeper, and Audrey eventually attended a Catholic high school called St. Francis Xavier Female Academy. It was there, under the tutelage of the Sisters of Mercy, that the young Munson learned how to sing and play the piano, violin, harp, mandolin, and guitar.

By 1908, a 17-year-old Munson had started performing in small shows like the touring production of the musical Marrying Mary. She and her mother relocated to New York the following year so the teenage performer could pursue a career in show business. On May 31, 1909, at 18 years old, Munson set foot on a Broadway stage for the first time, dressed in drag and playing the part of a footman in a musical comedy called The Boy and the Girl.

Around this time, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. was beginning to make waves with The Ziegfeld Follies, a series of extravagant variety shows that often featured large choruses of attractive young women who came to be known as “Ziegfeld girls.” Though Munson never performed in one of Ziegfeld’s revues, her arresting beauty and many musical talents made her an ideal chorus girl. She appeared in the choruses of similar productions, including The Girl and the Wizard, Girlies, and La Belle Paree.

Had Munson continued on this path, it’s possible her name would have faded into anonymity with the hundreds of other Broadway hopefuls whose careers petered out once they aged past their chorus-girl prime. But a chance encounter steered her in a drastically different direction.

From Performing to Posing

In late 1909, Munson was window-shopping on 5th Avenue with her mother when she noticed a man paying unusually close attention to her. After she confronted him, he invited her to pose for him in his photography studio.

“We did not like the idea at all,” Munson later said in a 1913 interview for the New York Sun. “But finding out that he was one of the best photographers in town my mother and I went. He took some photographs, said I had a head almost antique in line, and began to tell his artist friends about me.”

The photographer was Felix Benedict Herzog, who was also an accomplished electrical engineer, patent attorney, and inventor. Though his role in Munson’s career only lasted a few years—he died suddenly in April 1912, after complications from intestinal surgery—he jumpstarted her pivot from performing to posing.

As Munson posed for Herzog and his contemporaries, she used her newfound connections to seek out more work. This streak of industriousness led her to the studio of sculptor Isidore Konti, who asked her to model for her first sculpture, The Three Graces, to be displayed in the main ballroom of New York’s Hotel Astor.

It was an extraordinary opportunity, but it came with a catch: Munson would have to pose nude.

Making It to the Top

Isidore Konti's Three Graces.Isidore Konti, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Though the ever-so-enterprising Munson was open to the idea, her more conservative mother hesitated to endorse it. But after three months of chaperoning her daughter’s (clothed) modeling sessions with Konti, Kittie finally gave Audrey her blessing to bare it all for art’s sake.

Munson quickly became one of New York’s most prolific early models, posing for what she estimated was a total of 200 artists, including photographers, illustrators, painters, sculptors, and even a tapestry weaver. If you’ve been to New York, you’ve almost definitely seen at least a few statues bearing Munson’s image, even if you didn’t realize it—many Manhattan neighborhoods have at least one, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art houses another 30 or so. The caryatids supporting the main saloon’s mantelpiece in one of J.P. Morgan’s yachts were carved from Munson’s likeness, and tapestries in George Vanderbilt’s mansion were designed in her image, too. Since some of the pieces Munson modeled for were privately commissioned, it’s not clear where they ended up (or if they’ve even survived various renovations and relocations).

As for those still prominently displayed, perhaps the most striking piece is Civic Fame, a 25-foot gilded copper statue atop the Manhattan Municipal Building that Adolph Alexander Weinman designed in 1913. It’s New York’s second largest statue, dwarfed only by the Statue of Liberty herself.

Adolph Alexander Weinman's Civic Fame atop the Manhattan Municipal Building.CelsoDiniz/iStock via Getty Images

Another gilded version of Munson—bronze, this time—decorates the top of the USS Maine National Monument in Columbus Circle, honoring the 260 sailors who died during the 1898 sinking of the USS Maine in Havana, Cuba. Funded by William Randolph Hearst in 1913, the statue depicts Columbia—the female personification of the United States—riding a seashell chariot pulled by three horse-seahorse hybrid creatures called hippocampi. Sculptor Attilio Piccirilli used metal from the sunken ship for parts of the memorial, which also includes a ship's prow jutting over a fountain and a plaque that lists the victims' names.

Attilio Piccirilli's USS Maine National Monument in New York's Columbus Circle.Elisa Rolle, Attilio Piccirilli, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Munson is also immortalized in marble outside the New York Public Library’s main branch, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. Frederick MacMonnies's Beauty depicts a mostly nude Munson looking skyward as she leans against a horse.

Frederick MacMonnies's Beauty, at the New York Public Library's main branch.William de Witt Ward, Frederick MacMonnies, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By mid-1913, Munson-inspired works were so prevalent around the city, the New York Sun published a profile on her titled “All New York Bows to the Real Miss Manhattan” in its June 8 issue.

But despite the hundreds of artworks to which Audrey lent her likeness, her paychecks weren't on par with today's Instagram influencers. The going rate for a model at the time—nude or not—was 50 cents an hour, meaning the Munsons lived a modest life. “It was just enough to pay our rent, grocery bills and buy a few clothes once in a while … Almost nothing for amusements,” Munson said in a 1921 newspaper article.

Between the countless hours of sitting, standing, or lying stock-still for artists, Munson branched out into another industry: film.

A False Start in Film

On November 18, 1915, Thanhouser Company released the silent film Inspiration, and Munson became the first American movie star to appear naked in a non-pornographic film. Loosely based on Munson’s own life, Inspiration tells the story of a young girl discovered in New York by a sculptor in need of a muse; it even features some real-life statues that Munson posed for. Though the film was an overall success, it did stir up some dissent from viewers who balked at the nudity. Local officials actually arrested a theater manager in Ossining, New York, for showing the “improper film,” and the city’s Civic League established a censorship committee to prevent similar calamities from happening in the future. “I saw enough and got all the ‘inspiration’ I wanted,” one member said.

Munson was characteristically undeterred. She and her mother moved to California, where the performer appeared nude again in 1916’s Purity. It was another successful (yet polarizing) motion picture, but it also marked the beginning of the end of Munson’s meteoric rise to fame. Her next film, The Girl O’ Dreams, was never released. The reasons are unknown, but biographer James Bone has speculated it may have been a dispute over film rights—no fault of Munson's.

Struggling to Stay Above the Fray

Munson in Purity, 1916.Apeda Studio, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

The Munsons returned to New York in late 1916. Audrey spent the next two years caught up in the high society circles of New York and Newport, Rhode Island, and allegedly struck up a relationship with shipping heir Hermann Oelrichs, Jr. Her mother claimed the two had actually married, though there’s no record to support this.

Whatever feelings Munson had for her purported beau turned sour by early 1919. That January, she sent a strange letter to the U.S. Department of State insisting the German government’s considerable investment in the film industry was preventing her from booking any roles. She listed Oelrichs, Jr. and other well-known German-Americans as co-conspirators in this plot, arguing that they discriminated against her because she was descended from early British settlers. “As you know the Kaisers [sic] $25,000,000 in the Motion Picture Industry has thrown me out of work as I am an American of English blood dating back to the Mayflower days,” she wrote.

Nothing came of Munson's baseless accusations, but her vilification of “the German” and “the German-Jew” in the letter hinted at a festering anti-Semitic streak both Munson and her mother made evident throughout other correspondence.

Things unraveled further in February, when Munson and her mother were brought in for questioning about Dr. Walter K. Wilkins’s murder of his wife, Julia. The press reported that Wilkins, who owned a boarding house where the Munsons had stayed, had been carrying on an affair with a “pretty young woman” many assumed was Audrey. She denied any relationship and even vouched for his character, but the onslaught of negative publicity certainly didn't help her career.

In 1921, Munson attempted to reclaim control of her reputation by telling her life story in 20 serialized articles entitled The Queen of the Artists’ Studios in Hearst’s New York American newspaper. The series was meant to drum up publicity for her new film, Heedless Moths, also based on Munson’s life. But the filmmakers only used Munson herself for a few shots, and gave the majority of her role to newcomer Jane Thomas. It was another instance of others enjoying and profiting from Munson's image with little regard for the woman behind it—an inescapable theme of her career as a model and muse—and her writing reflected her despondence.

“I am wondering if many of my readers have not stood before a masterpiece of lovely sculpture or a remarkable painting of a young girl, her very abandonment of draperies accentuating rather than diminishing her modesty and purity, and asked themselves the question, 'Where is she now, this model who has been so beautiful?'” she wrote in one article. “'What has been her reward? Is she happy and prosperous, or is she sad and forlorn, her beauty gone, leaving only memories in its wake?'”

Advertisements used Munson's name to drum up interest, but Jane Thomas got to be the star of the actual show.Equity Pictures Corporation, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Not long after that, Munson launched a widely publicized search for “the perfect man.” But Munson had grown up valuing her own English-American beauty above all else, and her idea that marriage should be “for the good of the race” reflected her eugenic, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic tendencies. Though she did choose a husband—Joseph J. Stevenson, a World War I pilot and wealth contractor from Chicago—they never actually pursued their relationship.

By 1922, a dispirited, hapless Munson was living with her mother in Mexico, New York, north of Syracuse. In May of that year, at 28 years old, the former model attempted to swallowed mercury-based poison in an attempt to die by suicide. She survived, but she didn't try to return to the limelight.

A Quiet New Life

For almost a decade, Munson lived with her mother in upstate New York, where her mental health further deteriorated. In 1931, citing depression, delusions, hallucinations, and more, Kittie committed her daughter to an asylum.

Shortly after she turned 40, Munson moved into the St. Lawrence State Hospital in Ogdensburg, New York. Except for a brief stint in a nursing home, she remained at that hospital for the next 65 years, and her mother's death in 1958 marked the beginning of a 26-year period with no visitors. Then, in 1984, Munson's half-brother's daughter, Darlene Bradley, tracked her down and took her father to be reunited with his long-lost sister. Bradley continued to pay regular visits until her elderly aunt died on February 20, 1996, at 104 years old.

Munson was cremated, and her ashes were placed in her father’s grave at New Haven Cemetery in New Haven, New York. The tombstone listed Edgar Munson, his second wife, Cora, and their daughter, Vivian—but for 20 years, there was no mention that the former star was laid to rest there, too.

In 2016, New Haven town clerk Debra Allen and town historian Marie Strong decided it was time to honor Munson’s legacy with a tombstone of her own. Since they couldn’t allocate town funds for that purpose, they entered and won numerous county fair baking contests. The two spent their prize money on a simple, elegant tombstone etched with flowers and the words Actress & Model—the last bit of stone bearing witness to the everlasting legacy of America's first supermodel.