Karen Wetterhahn was a rising star and chemistry researcher at Dartmouth studying how the heavy metal chromium damages DNA and causes cancer, but she died in 1997 after an accidental exposure to dimethylmercury while working in the lab. Now, 25 years later, a cover story in Chemical & Engineering News, an independent news outlet of the American Chemical Society, reflects on her enduring legacy on lab safety, the scientific method and women in science.
On Aug. 14, 1996, Wetterhahn was preparing dimethylmercury for an experiment when several drops landed on one of her hands, reports freelance writer Sam Lemonick. At the time, Wetterhahn was wearing latex gloves and following recommended lab safety procedures. But five months later, the effects of mercury poisoning became apparent when she started having difficulty walking and speaking, and later entered a coma. Wetterhahn died on June 8, 1997 at the age of 48 years old. Scientists had known dimethylmercury was toxic, but many were surprised to learn just how deadly the substance was. Although she was only exposed to a few drops, tests showed that Wetterhahn’s blood contained a level of mercury that was 200 times higher than what is considered to be lethal. Other tests revealed that dimethylmercury can penetrate latex gloves—the same kind Wetterhahn wore on the day of her accident—within seconds. Following her accident and death, researchers sought to spread the word about dimethylmercury’s dangers throughout the chemistry community.
Wetterhahn’s colleagues and collaborators consider her a trailblazer in the field of heavy-metal and chromium toxicity. Those who worked closely with her speak highly of her mentorship, research integrity and interdisciplinary approach to science through large-scale teams. As part of her work, she secured funding to launch a major program to understand heavy metals pollution in Vermont and New Hampshire. Outside the lab, Wetterhahn co-founded Dartmouth’s Women in Science Project, fought to remove barriers for women in science who followed her path, and in 1989 became the first woman to serve as associate dean for sciences at Dartmouth. And although no one knows what else Wetterhahn could have accomplished if she were still alive, her colleagues, collaborators, friends and family all reflect kindly on the impact her legacy has had on them and on the wider scientific community.
The article is freely available at https://cenm.ag/karen-wetterhahn.
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