>Scientist's death traced to seemingly trifling mishap
>by Helen O'Neill
>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
>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, 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.
>A few nights later, 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. Yet somehow it had penetrated her skin.
>By the weekend, Karen couldn't walk, her speech was slurred and her hands
>trembled. The initial diagnosis of "virus" seemed awfully vague for symptoms
>that were getting worse every day.
>"It's mercury poisoning," Dr. David Nierenberg said. "We have to start
>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.
>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.
>It was important work, the kind that could lead to cures for cancer and
>AIDS. Karen thrived on it.
>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
>a kid's hockey game.
>"We never knew she was a world-famous scientist," one neighbor said
>afterward. "She was just Char and Ashley's mom."
>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.
>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.
>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. Dimethlymercury, 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.
>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.
>There was no telling if dimethlymercury 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.
>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, Ashley.
>From her hospital bed, the mother struggled. She drooled and moaned and the
>words just wouldn't come. Ashley, 14, waited uncomfortably. 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.
>"She just wanted to say goodnight," Ashley says, bowing his head to hide the
>tears when he remembers the last time he talked to his mother. "She couldn't
>even say goodnight."
>Others remember final moments, too, although everything was happening so
>fast they didn't seem like goodbyes at the time. But friends could see the
>toll on the scientist's mind and body. They could see her faith fading, even
>as she continued to talk about being back on her feet for her new spring
>course. The day the ambulance came to take her to Massachusetts, she cried
>Karen's lab was shut down. Her family, students and co-workers were tested.
>Her hospital room was checked for airborne mercury from her breath. Federal
>environmental and health agencies were alerted, as was the state health
>department. Her car and clothes and house were sniffed with
>Scientists and doctors around the world offered their services.
>"It was an extraordinary outpouring," Nierenberg says.
>But Karen was slipping too fast to appreciate it. Ten days after the
>diagnosis, on Feb. 7, she fell into a coma. Leon told the doctors he was
>taking her home.
>Back at Dartmouth Hitchcock Hospital, her family kept vigil by her bedside,
>her parents and sister talking to her as her body thrashed and moaned. Leon
>plastered the walls with cards and photographs: Karen on the golf course, at
>Disney World with the kids, lunch with her friends Cathy and Nadia, shaking
>hands with President Clinton at graduation ceremonies in 1996.
>Just a tiny drop of poison. And she was fighting it with all her might.
>It became too difficult for the children to visit. Even friends stayed home,
>waiting for the phone call that would tell them it was over.
>Her husband stroked her face. Her sister and her best friend washed her
>hair. Doctors tried treatments never attempted on humans before.
>But they couldn't save her from the poison. On June 8, it took her life.
>"She didn't suffer," Ashley told his eighth-grade class the next day. "She
>just stopped breathing."
>It was 10 months since she had spilled the drop in the lab, four months
>after she had slipped into a coma.
>Karen Wetterhahn's death was as extraordinary as her life and, in many ways,
>just as important. Perhaps she had an idea that it would be.
>While she could still speak, she urged doctors and scientists to learn
>everything they could from her accident and to warn the world about the
>The world has already learned so much. It learned that the gloves that were
>supposed to protect her actually acted as a conductor to the poison. It
>learned that dimethlymercury, so easy to order in research catalogs, is more
>deadly than anyone had imagined. Saddest of all, it learned that by the time
>the symptoms showed, it was too late.
>Her funeral took place on a hot summer day to the strains of a flute and a
>choir singing "Be Not Afraid."
>In the packed college chapel, the sense of betrayal was as powerful as the
>sense of loss. Colleagues wept as they eulogized a modern-day Madame Curie
>who had sacrificed her life to her cause.
>Alone and bewildered, Leon sat in the front pew, looking out of place in his
>dark funeral suit, tears streaming down his face.
>It all seemed like a dream, he says later. No, he corrects himself - a
>"She loved her work," he says. "It made her happy."
>She couldn't have known the risks. She couldn't have known how bad the bad
>stuff really was. Truth is, no one knew.
>Just a tiny drop of liquid. Sweet-smelling. Dense. Deadly.