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Editorial: 25 years after her death, Karen Wetterhahn’s legacy lives on

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
June 11, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 21


On June 8, we posted this issue’s cover story commemorating the 25th anniversary of the death of Karen Wetterhahn. She died of dimethylmercury poisoning after being exposed during a lab accident.

Karen Wetterhahn looks at a beaker filled with a yellow liquid while standing next to chromatography columns suspended on lab supports.
Credit: Dartmouth College Photographer/Courtesy of Dartmouth College Library
Karen Wetterhahn’s research focused on the toxicity of heavy metals.

Many chemists will remember the incident. Scientists were shocked to learn that only a few drops spilled on her hand caused her death. The accident and the investigation that followed paved the way for a better understanding of dimethylmercury’s toxicity and led to changes in lab safety practices.

Wetterhahn is well remembered by many chemists; some may have met her in person. She was a rising star, a trailblazer, and a mentor who championed women in science and helped them succeed in a field that was dominated by men.

On page 28, C&EN contributor Sam Lemonick retells Wetterhahn’s story with sensitivity and beautifully captures her legacy in the chemical sciences. Lemonick and Jyllian Kemsley, executive editor of policy and content partnerships, started this project more than 9 months ago. It involved many hours of researching archives; talking to Wetterhahn’s family, friends, and colleagues; interviewing toxicology experts; attending symposia; and more. It shows their—and C&EN’s—dedication to covering the people who do chemistry and to promoting lab safety.

In tribute to Wetterhahn, I’d like to share some of the comments we have received after publishing the story online:

“I acutely remember when this happened. Dr Wetterhahn was a pioneer and a barrier breaker! Truly bold and amazing. I remember the shock and the impact this tragedy had on myself and fellow chemists who were still in the lab. Let this be a reminder to all what an amazing scientist she was BUT also how very dangerous chemistry is. The bench chemist even with proper training and PPE [personal protective equipment] takes a risk with every experiment they run in order to advance science for the better of us all.” —Michael Genin via LinkedIn

“25 years later this still makes me so sad. I was just getting started in chemistry when Karen Wetterhahn died. Her name came up often as I was learning about lab safety and the importance of proper PPE.” —@stephaniekays via Twitter

“Prof. Wetterhahn’s story would inspire young people who want to live a ‘life of service’ to become chemists. How can we get this article in front of the eyeballs of middle- and high school students?”—Tony Czarnik via LinkedIn

“I strongly recommend to every active lab chemist to read this tragic story and then hopefully reflects its own standards of wearing proper safety clothes (including the right gloves and goggles or even face shields if recommended) depending on the chemistry.”—@michaelmastale4 via Twitter.

“An important story demonstrating that our understanding of chemical safety is always evolving.”—@clh731 via Twitter

“Sad Anniversary. Karen Wetterhahn was my freshman year adviser at @dartmouth #Chemistry​. Brilliant #scientist, great #mentor. Glad her legacy lives on.”—@SaraPaisner via Twitter

“Karen was a trailblazer in so many ways. She was the first woman TT [tenure-track] faculty @DartmouthChem, first woman associate dean for sciences @dartmouth, helped start the Women in Science Program & established the highly successful Toxic Metals Superfund. What a legacy!”—@aprahamian via Twitter.

“A wonderful tribute to the legacy of an exceptional woman and scientist whose untimely death influenced my early research.”—@DrKimOceana via Twitter

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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