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Pick Your Poison
MAY 2005
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Poison @ National Geographic Magazine
By Cathy Newman
Photographs by Cary Wolinsky
Sometimes they're used with sinister motive, sometimes with healing in mind. Today, as they have for centuries, poisons often turn up where you least expect them.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Bad things come in small packages. On August 14, 1996, Karen Wetterhahn, a toxicologist and professor of chemistry at Dartmouth College, spilled a drop, a tiny speck, of dimethylmercury on her left hand. Wetterhahn, tall, thin, intense, was an expert on how toxic metals cause cancer once they penetrate cell membranes. When she spilled the poisonous droplet in her lab, she thought nothing of it; she was wearing latex gloves. What she didn't know killed her.

The dimethylmercury was volatile enough to penetrate the glove. Five months later Wetterhahn began stumbling into doors and slurring words. After three weeks in a hospital, she slipped into a coma.

"I went to see her, but it wasn't the kind of coma I'd expected," recalled Diane Stearns, one of her postdoctoral students, now a professor of chemistry herself. "She was thrashing about. Her husband saw tears rolling down her face. I asked if she was in pain. The doctors said it didn't appear that her brain could even register pain."

Karen Wetterhahn died five months later. She was 48 years old, a wife and mother of two. The mercury had devoured her brain cells "like termites eating away for months," one of her doctors said. How could such a brilliant, meticulous, world-class toxicologist come to such an end?

"Only lion tamers are killed by lions," said Kent Sugdan, one of her postdoctoral fellows.


Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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