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Scientist's Death Helped Increase Knowledge of Mercury Poisoning

Tragedy: Researchers knew little about the effects of dimethylmercury until a drop penetrated her skin.

September 14, 1997|HELEN O'NEILL | ASSOCIATED PRESS

LYME, N.H. — It was just a drop of liquid, just a tiny glistening drop. It glided over her glove like a jewel.

Scientist Karen Wetterhahn knew the risks: The bad stuff kills if you get too close.

She took all the precautions working with mercury in her Dartmouth College lab--wearing protective gloves and eye goggles, working under a ventilated hood that sucks up chemical fumes.

So on that sunny day in August 1996 when she accidentally spilled a drop, she didn't think anything of it. She washed her hands, cleaned her instruments and went home.

It was just a drop of liquid, just a tiny glistening drop.

At first, friends thought she had caught a stomach bug on her trip to Malaysia. It wasn't until she started bumping into doors that her husband, Leon Webb, began to worry. Karen, always so focused, always so sure of her next step, was suddenly falling down as if she were drunk.

In 15 years together, she had never been sick, never stopped working, never complained. Leon was stunned when she called for a ride home from work.

Over lunch a few days later, Karen confided to her best friend, Cathy Johnson, that she hadn't felt right for some time. Words seemed to be getting stuck in her throat. Her hands tingled. It felt like her whole body was moving in slow motion.

"Karen," Johnson said as she drove her back to the college, "we've got to get you to the hospital."

"After work," Karen promised, walking unsteadily into the Burke chemistry building for the last time.

That night, Leon drove her to the emergency room. It was Monday, Jan. 20, 1997, five months since she had spilled the drop in the lab. Just a single drop of liquid. But somehow it had penetrated her skin.

By the weekend, Karen couldn't walk, her speech was slurred and her hands trembled. Leon paced the house. "Virus" seemed an awfully vague diagnosis for symptoms that were getting worse every day.

"It's mercury poisoning," Dr. David Nierenberg said. "We have to start treatment immediately."

Leon hung up with relief. At last they understood the problem. Now maybe they could fix it.

*

It seemed impossible to believe that anything could be wrong with Karen Wetterhahn, one of those quietly impressive individuals whose lives seemed charmed from the start.

Serious and hardworking, she excelled at everything she turned to--science or sailing or skiing. She grew up near Lake Champlain in upstate New York in a family so close that when she and her only sister became mothers, they named their daughters after each other: Charlotte and Karen.

Karen was always the brilliant one of the family, the one who would do great things. And she did, becoming the first woman chemistry professor at Dartmouth, running a world-renowned laboratory on chromium research, devoting herself to her work.

It was important work, the kind that could lead to cures for cancer and AIDS. Karen thrived on it. She loved nothing more than experimenting with a chemical, figuring out its bad side and how it breaks down living things.

In the often cutthroat world of scientific research and ideas, where work is judged in academic journals and egos are as enormous as intellects, Karen stood out. Other professors would send their students to her office just to meet her. Talk to Karen, they would say. See how you can balance the demands of work and life and still be on top of your field.

The only place on Earth more precious than her lab was the dark cedar house that Leon, a mason, had built with his own hands. Home was Karen's haven, her retreat from the rarefied halls of Ivy League academia.

Here, in the pretty village of Lyme, at the top of a hill at the end of a dirt road, she would listen to rock music--heavy metal was her favorite--and tend her garden.

Here, science came second to 12-year-old Charlotte's baby rabbits, 14-year-old Ashley's mountain bikes, Todd the goat and Dillon the pony.

At home, she would throw great neighborhood parties by the pool, or gather up the family and drag them off to the golf course, or the tennis court, or Ashley's hockey game.

"We never knew she was a world-famous scientist," one neighbor said afterward. "She was just Char and Ashley's mom."

Mercury poisoning.

Karen beamed when she heard the news. Finally, something she understood. Something she could explain. They would feed her fat white nasty-tasting pills that would flush the poison out of her system. Science would cure her, she told her husband, giddy with excitement as she sat in bed surrounded by her children and her notes.

"Karen was happy, so I was happy," Leon says now. "We just didn't know."

How could they have known? Back in January, virtually nothing was known about the extraordinary dangers of dimethylmercury, the rare man-made compound Karen had spilled. Scientists didn't know it could seep through a latex glove like a drop of water through a Kleenex. Doctors didn't know it could break down the body over the course of a few months, slowly, insidiously, irreversibly.

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