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.”

Bessie Coleman, the Black Cherokee Female Pilot Who Made Aviation History

Photo illustration by Riccardo Zagorodnez, Mental Floss. Plane/landscape, iStock via Getty Images. Portrait, New York Public Library // Public Domain
Photo illustration by Riccardo Zagorodnez, Mental Floss. Plane/landscape, iStock via Getty Images. Portrait, New York Public Library // Public Domain

Early 20th century America didn’t offer many career paths to people like Bessie Coleman. It was a time when women were discouraged from working outside domestic spheres, and opportunities for women of African American and Native American descent were even more limited. When Coleman fell in love with the idea of flying planes, she knew that realizing her dream would be impossible in the United States—but instead of giving up, she moved to France to enroll in flight school. Less than a year later, she returned home as the first African American and the first Native American female pilot in aviation history.

A Determined Beginning

Bessie Coleman was born to sharecroppers in Texas on January 26, 1892. She was one of 13 siblings, and like the rest of Coleman clan, she was expected to help pick cotton on the farm as soon as she was old enough. At 6 years old, she started walking to school: a one-room wooden shack located four miles from her house. Her classroom often lacked basic supplies like paper and pencils, and, like all schools in the region, it was segregated.

Despite less-than-ideal conditions, she excelled in class and continued her studies through high school. In 1901, her father, who was part black and part Cherokee, relocated to Native American territory in Oklahoma to escape discrimination in Texas, leaving Bessie and the rest of his family behind. She knew she couldn’t depend on her now single-parent family to contribute money toward her education, so to save for college, she went to work as a laundress.

After a year at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University—now Langston University—in Langston, Oklahoma, she dropped out when her tuition fund ran dry. Even though she was more educated than many women of the time, there were few opportunities for her in the South. At age 23, she followed her brothers to Chicago, which, though racially segregated, was slightly more welcoming to people of color than Texas had been. In Chicago, Coleman was able to mingle with influential figures in the African American community. She went to beauty school and became a manicurist in a local barbershop.

Chicago was also where she decided she wanted to learn how to fly.

Dreams of Flight—and France

Around the same time Coleman moved up north, World War I erupted in Europe. The conflict quickened the pace of technological advancement, including in aviation. For the first time in history, people around the world could watch fighter planes soar through the skies in newsreels and read about them in the papers. Coleman fell in love.

When her brother John returned home to Chicago after serving overseas, he gave her more material to fuel her daydreams. In addition to regaling her with war stories, he teased her about her new fantasy, claiming that French women were superior to local women because they were allowed to fly planes, something Bessie would never be able to do. He may have said the words in jest, but they held some truth: Female pilots were incredibly rare in the U.S. immediately following World War I, and black female pilots were nonexistent.

Coleman quickly learned that American flight instructors were intent on keeping things that way. Every aviation school she applied to rejected her on the basis of her race and gender.

Fortunately for Coleman, her brothers weren't her only source of support in Chicago. After moving to the city, she met Robert Abbott, publisher of the historic black newspaper The Chicago Defender and one of the first African American millionaires. He echoed John’s idea that France was a much better place for aspiring female pilots, but instead of rubbing it in her face, he presented it as an opportunity. Abbott viewed France as one of the world’s most racially progressive nations, and he encouraged her to move there in pursuit of her pilot's license.

Coleman didn’t need to be convinced. With her heart set on a new dream, she quit her job as a manicurist and accepted a better-paying role as the manager of a chili parlor to raise money for her trip abroad. At night she took French classes in the Chicago loop. Her hard work paid off, and with her savings and some financial assistance from Abbot and another black entrepreneur named Jesse Binga, she boarded a ship for France in November 1920.

The First Black Aviatrix

Coleman was the only non-white person in her class at the Caudron Brothers' School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France. Students were taught to fly using 27-foot-long biplanes that were known to stall in mid-air. One day, she even witnessed one of her classmates die in a crash. Describing the incident later on, she said, "It was a terrible shock to my nerves, but I never lost them."

Despite the risks, she pressed on with lessons, and after seven months of training, she received her aviation license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. She became both the first African American woman and the first Native American woman in the world to earn a pilot’s license.

Coleman completed some extra flight lessons in Paris and then boarded a ship bound for the United States. American news outlets were instantly smitten with the 29-year-old pilot. The Associated Press reported on September 26, 1921 that "Today [Coleman] returned as a full-fledged aviatrix, said to be the first of her race."

In the early 1920s, an aviatrix, or female aviator, was still a fairly new concept in America, and many of the most famous women flyers of the 20th century—like Laura Ingalls, Betty Skelton, and Amelia Earhart—had yet to enter the scene. Coleman's persistence helped clear the path for the next generation of female pilots.

But her success in France didn’t mark the end of her battle with racism. Bessie needed more training to learn the airshow tricks she now hoped to do for a living, but even with her international pilot's license and minor celebrity status since returning home, American flight schools still refused to teach her. Just a few months after landing in the U.S., Bessie went back to Europe—this time to Germany and the Netherlands as well as France to learn the barnstorming stunts that were quickly growing into one of the most popular forms of entertainment of the 1920s.

Upon her second homecoming in 1922, newspapers praised her once again, reporting that European aviators had dubbed her "one of the best flyers they had seen." Finally, she would be able to show off her skills in her home country. Robert Abbott, the newspaperman who helped fund her dream, sponsored her first-ever American airshow at Curtiss Field, Long Island, on September 3, 1922. She spent the next few years touring the country, thrilling spectators by parachuting, wing-walking (moving atop the wings of her biplane mid-flight), and performing aerial figure-eights.

Coleman had become a real celebrity, and she tried to use her prominence to help black people. She gave speeches on aviation to predominantly black crowds and planned to open her own flight school for African American students. She only performed for desegregated audiences—the one notable exception being a show in Waxahachie, Texas, the town where she lived for most of her childhood. Event organizers planned to segregate black and white guests and have them use separate entrances. Coleman protested and threatened to cancel the exhibition unless a single entrance was set up for everyone. Officials eventually agreed, though audience members were still forced to sit on separate sides of the stadium once they entered.

Just when it seemed her career was reaching new heights, it was cut short by tragedy. On April 30, 1926, she was riding with her mechanic William Wills in Jacksonville, Florida, in preparation for a show scheduled for the next day, when a wrench left in the engine caused the plane to spin out of control. Coleman hadn’t been wearing her seatbelt, and she was tossed from the passenger seat at 3000 feet above the ground. She died at age 34.

Bessie Coleman never achieved the same level of name recognition as some of her peers, but the impact she left on aviation history is undeniable. Even if they’ve never heard her name, Chicagoans living near Lincoln Cemetery have likely heard the sounds of jets flying overhead on April 30. Every year on the anniversary of her death, black pilots honor Coleman by performing a flyover and dropping flowers on her grave.

Lydia Locke, the Early 20th Century Opera Singer With a Life Ripped From the Tabloids

Photo collage by James Mato, Minute Media. Portraits: Wikimedia Commons. Newspaper clipping: Newspapers.com.
Photo collage by James Mato, Minute Media. Portraits: Wikimedia Commons. Newspaper clipping: Newspapers.com.

If the events of Lydia Locke's life ever became the inspiration for an opera, the plot would probably get accused of being over the top.

Locke rose to prominence in the early 1900s, when mass celebrity was still a relatively new concept. But the American soprano embraced the label, making news both for her performances at the world’s most prestigious venues and for her fashion choices. Yet it was her tumultuous personal life that garnered the most attention: Between seven marriages, two dead husbands, and one fraudulent baby, her life was scandalous even by the standards of today's news.

'Til Death Do Us Part

Lydia Locke was born into a humble household in Hannibal, Missouri, in 1886. She started performing on stage as a teenager, and had reached full-fledged stardom by her early twenties. As a young adult, she performed at Oscar Hammerstein’s London Opera House and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She maintained an extravagant persona off-stage, with magazines writing about where she traveled on vacation and what she wore to the latest party at the Ritz-Carlton.

There was a messy love life hiding behind the glamorous image. Around age 22, Locke married her first husband, 43-year-old Reginald W. Talbot, in Reno, Nevada. Their marriage was stormy from the start. Talbot, who had already been married three times before, was a gambler who had hoped for a wife that would make home life a peaceful contrast to his time at the casino. Locke wasn’t interested in becoming a model of domesticity, and after a year of arguing over the matter, Talbot beat her brutally one night.

They met with Locke’s divorce lawyer the next morning, but having a third person in the room did little to defuse the tension. They started arguing, Talbot became violent, and Locke retaliated by pulling a pistol from her fur muff and shooting her husband three times.

Reginald Talbot died in the lawyer’s office, and Locke was charged with his murder. The prosecution attempted to paint her as an amoral killer, but thanks to testimony of Talbot’s abuse from the house staff, as well as Locke's sweet voice and good looks, she won over the jury. They even applauded when the singer was acquitted.

A Honeymoon Cut Short

Now single, Locke redirected her energy into her professional life, performing in operas in Paris and Chicago. But it didn’t take long for her to find husband No. 2. Orville Harrold was a former hearse driver from Muncie, Indiana, and an opera tenor who worked for Oscar Hammerstein. He was also married. That didn’t stop him from falling for Locke, and a few days after finalizing his divorce from his wife back home, he married Locke in 1913. He told publications that his new wife was “one of the greatest things in my life. Lydia is of intellectual assistance to me. She possesses an amiable and loving disposition.”

His bride, meanwhile, declared her commitment in interviews. "Woman is spoiled," she said. "So many of her sex have demanded affection and given nothing in return for so long that she hasn't awakened to the fact that the ideal companionship of man and woman must consist of equal parts of affection, sacrifice, and sympathy."

Despite these optimistic words, the honeymoon phase didn’t even last through the literal honeymoon. The pair went to Italy after the wedding. As Jim Logan, superintendent of the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery—where Locke is buried—tells Atlas Obscura, Locke shot at Harrold with a gun on the trip; it's not entirely clear why. Lucky for him, her aim wasn’t as sharp as it had been the last time she pointed a pistol at a spouse. Their union somehow continued for several more years, likely aided by the fact that Harrold’s work took him around the world and out of the immediate path of his wife’s rage. When he wasn’t around, Locke found other outlets for her temper, including punching a chauffeur over 25 cents and brawling with a maid over eight days’ rent.

Eventually her second marriage did end, this time in divorce instead of death. The legal process was still underway when Locke met the man who was to become her third husband: A wealthy organ company president named Arthur Marks. The pair wed around 1918, not long after her divorce from Harrold went through.

A Hefty Bribe and a Stolen Baby

The marriage to Marks turned out to be one of the opera singer’s longer romantic entanglements, and arguably the one that most closely resembled a soap opera. The couple stayed married for six years, and even adopted a son together, before the union proved too much for her husband. Suffering from severe exhaustion, Marks checked into a sanitarium around 1924, where he was promptly badgered by calls from his wife. The doctor spoke with her, and following their conversation, told Marks: “You’d better pack up. I can’t do anything for you. What you need is a divorce.”

The exact details that led to this breaking point are unclear, but after the couple officially split in 1924, things got much uglier. Locke continued to pester her ex-husband by calling him on the phone at all hours. He couldn’t take it anymore, and offered her a deal: He would pay her $100,000 on top of the $300,000 alimony she had already received if she agreed not to contact him for at least a year.

The arrangement didn’t last long. She broke the agreement and reached out after six months, but only because she had news she thought Marks would want to hear. She told him she had given birth since they saw each other last, and claimed that he was the father. Anticipating any doubts he might have, she showed up with a birth certificate, affidavits, and an actual baby to prove it.

Arthur Marks was prepared to support his alleged child, but knowing his former wife too well, he hired private detectives to investigate the matter further. His suspicions were confirmed: The child wasn’t his. And it wasn’t Locke’s either; she had “borrowed” the baby from the Willow Maternity Hospital in Kansas City under a fake name and forged the birth certificate. When the police came to collect the infant, she admitted that she “made an error somehow” and avoided any criminal charges.

"Like a Vamp in the Movies"

Lydia Locke was around 38 years old during her interlude with the stolen infant, and the second half of her life was no less exciting than the first. After discovering that Marks had married one of her former friends, she sent him a “poison pen” letter filled with descriptions of his new wife's behavior too salacious for newspapers to publish. She was indicted by a federal grand jury for spreading obscene accusations through the mail and sued by Mark's wife for defamation. Locke showed little remorse. She painted herself as a victim and her ex-husband as the villain when speaking to newspapers. "This is a frame-up," she said. "I will be completely vindicated and that man—that man; I'll see that he is properly punished for this." Though she was never "completely vindicated" in the eyes of the public, neither case made it to trial.

Meanwhile, Locke had found a new husband in her personal assistant, Harry Dornblaser. Husband No. 4 was out of the picture almost immediately, skipping out on their honeymoon in Europe and turning up dead from apparent suicide in a cabin in Cleveland, Ohio, a few months later.

Her next husband was a former Balkan count she married in 1927 and divorced in the 1930s. Her last wedding, to businessman and real estate tycoon Irwin Rose, was listed on her marriage certificate as her seventh—indicating there had been a sixth marriage after the count, though the identity of this mystery groom remains unknown.

The seventh time proved to be the charm for Lydia Locke. The pair moved into a mansion on Locke’s 1000-acre estate in Yorktown, New York, and ran an inn together on the property. Following 12 years of marriage—a personal record for her—she died in 1966 at age 82.

By the end of her life, Lydia Locke’s media reputation had transformed from fabulous socialite to a woman who was “like a vamp in the movies” and “veteran of the divorce wars." Following her death, she did receive a little recognition for something other than her love life: In 1968, one of the concert gowns that made her a fashion icon was displayed at the Davenport House [PDF] museum in Yorktown. But even in today’s age of nonstop celebrity gossip coverage, Locke is remembered, above all else, for her scandals.

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