The Karen Wetterhahn story
Karen Wetterhahn was an internationally respected Professor of Chemistry, an expert researcher in the field of the effects of heavy metals upon living systems, especially in their role in causing cancer. By an exquisite irony, she became a victim of a heavy metal poison.
The Albert Bradley Third Century Professor in the Sciences at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, Wetterhahn was doing something few professors do - working at the lab bench - on August 14th 1996. She was studying the way mercury ions interacted with DNA repair proteins, and was using [Hg(CH3)2] as a standard reference material for 199Hg NMR measurements.
Wetterhahn knew about the high toxicity of dimethylmercury and took very reasonable precautions, donning safety glasses and latex gloves, doing manipulations in a fume cupboard and only working with very small quantities behind the fume cupboard sash. Dimethylmercury, supplied by a chemical manufacturer, came in a sealed glass vial. A colleague of hers cooled the vial in ice-water to reduce the volatility of the Hg(CH3)2 then cut off the glass top to open it. Wetterhahn pipetted a small sample into a NMR tube and transferred the rest into a storage container, sealed and labeled the tubes and cleaned up, disposing of the latex gloves. Less than a year later, she was dead from the effects of mercury poisoning.