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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

Above all, no one knew how to stop its deadly progress as it cut off her hearing, her speech, her vision, reducing her body to a withered shell.

Today, because of Karen, the world knows so much more.

*

Quicksilver, as mercury is called, has long played a sinister game of seduction with science. One of the world's oldest metals, it comes in various forms--some that heal, some that kill. Dimethylmercury, a colorless liquid that looks like water but is three times heavier, is far more toxic than other forms--the kind used in thermometers and batteries and medicine. It's made purely for research and is rarely used.

Aug. 14, 1996. Just one shimmering drop. Now, six months later, Karen's body was riddled with it.

Karen was the one who remembered the spill. It nagged away at her in the hospital as she underwent CT scans and spinal taps and tests for everything except chemical poisoning.

But I work with mercury, she said. Shouldn't I be tested for the bad stuff?

The results plagued the doctors even more: Why had it taken so long for the symptoms to show? What kind of brain damage had already occurred? Had anyone else been exposed? Was she contagious?

And the question that still stings Leon's heart, the one that still seems almost obscene: "Does your wife have any enemies?"

"Enemies!" he whispers incredulously through tears. "Karen didn't have enemies. Everyone loved her."

*

She was easy to love, this tall athletic woman with the deep infectious laugh. Comfortable to talk to. Always there for students, colleagues and friends.

And for Leon.

In some ways, they seemed an unlikely match: Leon, 40, the son of a Vermont dairy farmer who decided early on that masonry was more profitable than milking cows, and Karen, 48, the daughter of a chemist, the brilliant teacher and scholar. They had an easy comfort with each other. She would watch him coach Charlotte's basketball team; he would accompany her on lecture trips to Italy, Norway and Hawaii.

"She was always interested in what I was doing," he says often, as if he somehow has to explain.

He always knew her work was important but, since the accident, he has made an effort to really understand it. Today, he can recite her resume almost by heart: the awards she won as a doctoral student at Columbia, where her research on platinum was considered the most exciting of its kind, the Women in Science mentoring program she started at Dartmouth, the $7-million federal grant she won to study toxic metals.

She didn't talk much about work at home, except the grant, the largest in the college's history. "She was so proud of that," he says.

The mercury research she was doing with Harvard and MIT was just something on the side, Leon explains. Chromium was Karen's real area of expertise.

He shakes his head at the irony. Who could have imagined that the builder would eventually learn more than the scientist about the perils of dimethylmercury?

*

Others were learning too. At Dartmouth Medical Center, Dr. David Nierenberg scoured the medical literature for clues about how to treat his colleague and friend. A mile away in his campus office, two doors down from Karen's, John Winn, head of Dartmouth's chemistry department, grabbed every paper on mercury he could find.

The more her colleagues read, the more their hearts sank.

There was only one documented case of dimethlymercury poisoning this century, a Czech chemist in 1972 who had suffered the same symptoms as Karen and died. A handful of people had been exposed directly to pure methlymercury, another toxic mercury compound, and died. More well-known mercury poisoning epidemics, like those in Iraq in the 1970s and Japan in the 1950s, involved exposure to foods contaminated by methylmercury.

There was no telling if dimethylmercury would act the same way.

Karen herself was beginning to understand. There was a desperate look on her face as she pointed to the clock when it was time to take her pills. Still, she kept up a brave face, kept saying not to worry.

"Even if I don't fully recover, maybe I'll get well enough to ride again," she whispered to her horse-riding friend and fellow scientist, Jacqueline Sinclair.

And when the hospital psychologist asked if she was depressed, she smiled. Wouldn't you be? she replied.

That was Jan. 31, three days after the diagnosis. A week later, Karen was transferred to Massachusetts General Hospital for a massive blood transfusion that nearly killed her.

*

Leon was pacing at home again, torn between honoring his wife's wish not to alert her parents and the feeling that she was sinking faster than she knew.

The phone rang. The nurse said Karen wanted to talk to her son.

From her hospital bed, the mother struggled. She drooled and moaned and the words just wouldn't come. Ashley waited uncomfortably. He didn't like the sounds. He didn't like the silence. "Hi, Mom," he coaxed, loud so she might hear. It was useless. The nurse ended the torture and took the phone.

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