Search Results for "suicide" : 4

Indiana University Biochemistry Major Commits Suicide with Hydrogen Sulfide

Almost exactly one month ago, I posted on a recent duo of suicides in my area by hydrogen sulfide (MSDS) – a toxic gas generated by mixing together certain easy-to-obtain household chemicals.

Today, I saw a story out of my home state of Indiana that a 21 year old junior biochemistry major from Indiana Univeristy has taken his life using this same hydrogen sulfide method.  Gregory Willoughby apparently worked as an undergraduate research assistant in the Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

In this instance, Gregory Willoughby barricaded himself in the closet of his dorm room on or about April 4.  He left notes on the closet door warning first responders that hydrogen sulfide gas was present.  Several days later, his suitemate began notifying physical plant of a strange odor in the area, and it took several visits by various facilities management groups over several days before they decided to enter Willoughby’s room.  Police had to break down the door as it was barricaded from the inside by tape and furniture.  By this time, the gas had thoroughly dissipated and no first responders complained of injuries as a result of residual hydrogen sulfide.

I’ve talked about the dangers of hydrogen sulfide before.  Perhaps its most dangerous symptom is olfactory fatigue.  Low concentrations of hydrogen sulfide smell like rotten eggs.  Prolonged exposure leads to olfactory fatigue – you lose the ability to detect the odor of hydrogen sulfide.  You no longer smell rotten eggs, so you think the threat has passed.  Instead, you are still inhaling potentially lethal levels of the toxic gas.  High concentrations of hydrogen sulfide can lead to instantaneous unconsciousness and near immediate death.

Hydrogen sulfide suicide is also potentially dangerous to first responders and innocent bystanders.  In several instances in several countries, first responders have been hospitalized for hydrogen sulfide inhalation after trying to rescue victims who do not leave notes warning the first responders of the danger.  Additionally, one story notes a Japanese teen who used hydrogen sulfide in an apartment building and sickened almost 100 other residents as the gas spread throughout the complex.  It is very fortunate that did not happen here, given the close living quarters of the typical college dorm.

I talked last time about the thin line between responsible and irresponsible use of chemicals found both around the house and especially in the chemistry lab.  We don’t – and probably won’t – know if this student made use of his chemistry knowledge in making his final decisions.  All we can do at this point is remind readers – chemists and non-chemists alike – to take seriously the responsibility inherent in handling chemicals.  It’s all too easy for bad things to happen (unintentional as well as intentional) when playing with chemicals.

Again, I want to take this opportunity to encourage anyone struggling with thoughts of suicide – especially anyone who came to this page today for that reason – to call 911, your local emergency response number, or any of the numerous national and local suicide hotlines available.  Do it now.  I will also post the same disclaimer as last time: the comments of this post will be closely monitored.  Anyone attempting to post recipes for the generation of hydrogen sulfide gas will have their comments removed immediately.

Previous at Chemistry-Blog:

Helpful information for first responders and health care providers:

  • Very detailed CDC bulletin on hydrogen sulfide with sections for on-site medical care as well as information for long-term care
  • St. Louis University bulletin on the dangers of and treatment for hydrogen sulfide inhalation
  • Shelby County (KY) EMS presentation on hydrogen sulfide

Stories about the IU suicide:

Update (4/15):

New news stories:

By April 14, 2010 5 comments science news

Hydrogen Sulfide Suicide

I woke up this morning to Breaking News on my local morning news.  Police responded to a suspicious vehicle call around 10pm, where they found a woman slumped over in her car.  Police opened the door, whereupon they discovered a bucket with chemicals on the front seat.  The officer was overcome with the fumes and treated at the hospital for burning in his throat.  His condition is as yet unknown (update: he was released).

The regional hazmat team evacuated the surrounding neighborhood while they attempted to remove the woman from the car.  The woman did not survive.

The police are not releasing details of the chemical used, but it appears to be related to a similar suicide on the other side of town in February.  In that case, the victim left notes all over the car saying, “Do not open!!! poison gas!!! hydrogen sulfide.”  Another note, in part, read “hazmat team needed.”  When hazmat crews opened the car in that case, they measured levels of hydrogen sulfide more than 3 times the lethal limit.

Hydrogen sulfide (HS) (MSDS) is a colorless, highly flammable gas.  Humans can detect hydrogen sulfide at low concentrations, where it smells like rotten eggs.  Higher levels (~40 ppm) can irritate mucous membranes and cause headache, fatigue, dizziness, and even memory loss and bronchitis on repeated exposure.  At concentrations 50-400 ppm, can produce cough, dyspnea, hemoptysis, cyanosis, agitation, vertigo, confusion, nausea and vomiting, tremulousness, cardiac arrhythmias, hypertension, and, possibly, loss of consciousness.  According to one source, “just 2-3 breaths of HS at >700 ppm can cause immediate death.”  Most notably, prolonged exposure quickly leads to “olfactory fatigue” whereupon you can no longer smell hydrogen sulfide and can no longer detect its presence.

The mode of action is as follows: “The major route of toxicity for HS is by inhalation. At lower doses, local irritant effects predominate. At higher exposures, cellular respiration may cease as HS forms a complex bond to the iron ion in mitochondrial cytochrome oxidase, arresting aerobic metabolism in an effect similar to cyanide toxicity and affecting all organs, particularly the nervous system.”

It’s no secret that chemicals can be used for nefarious purposes.  Perhaps the most familiar is death by cyanide poisoning, with perhaps the most infamous case being the suicide of graduate student Jason Altom at Harvard in 1998.  Atropine, adrenaline, carbon monoxide, chloroform, and even the bizarre UK case of assassination by polonium.  The educated chemist has only a thin line to cross when reaching across the chemical shelf.  A good dose of respect with a large side of humility is in order as we remember the power of the knowledge we have attained.

Suicide by hydrogen sulfide was new to me.  But a wave of this type of chemical suicide swept Japan beginning in 2008.  A USA Today article written in July 2008 noted over 500 deaths so far that year from hydrogen sulfide.  One teen, who released the gas in her apartment, sickened more than 80 people throughout the complex as the gas spread from unit to unit.  Isolated cases have appeared throughout the United States in the past few years, including these two around me in the last 3 weeks.

Fortunately, emergency management teams have produced a number of documents to aid emergency responders.

  • Very detailed CDC bulletin on hydrogen sulfide with sections for on-site medical care as well as information for long-term care
  • St. Louis University bulletin on the dangers of and treatment for hydrogen sulfide inhalation
  • Shelby County (KY) EMS presentation on hydrogen sulfide

Other Chemistry Blog posts on suicides in chemistry.

On behalf of the Chemistry Blog community, anyone struggling with thoughts of suicide – especially anyone who came to this page today for that reason – is urged to call 911, your local emergency response number, or any of the numerous national and local suicide hotlines available.  The comments of this post will be closely monitored.  Anyone attempting to post recipes for the generation of hydrogen sulfide gas will have their comments removed immediately.

Update: Chemjobber sends along an article from The Atlantic magazine talking in sometimes raw emotion about the suicide mentality that seems to be problematic in parts of Japan.

Update2: An updated list of places to contact if you are contemplating suicide today.  Please talk to someone.

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By March 15, 2010 60 comments science news

Suicides in Chemistry

This past week we lost a 1st year chemistry graduate student to suicide at UC Berkeley. I attempted to do some googleing to see what kind of suicide rate chemistry students have, but there seems to be no recent numbers or studies on the matter. Which is understandable, because which institution or field would eagerly make this information available. I was personally unfamiliar with the student or his personal demons that lead him to choose his tragic path, but one always has to wonder how much influence his PI or group dynamics play a role in these decisions, whether it is fair to do so or not.

I usually advice entering graduate students that the 1st year is the hardest, but honestly I would say it only gets harder. As graduate years go by, you simply become accustomed to long hours and higher stress. My advice to any young undergraduates is to build a solid support network when you enter graduate school. You will need it…

Edit 1: Press of the suicide: Chemistry Student Found Dead In Apparent Suicide
Edit 2: Good articles on the old suicide in the Corey group


By April 20, 2008 11 comments Uncategorized

Shades of Gray, The Curious History of LCDs

Prof. George Gray

Today is the 40th anniversary of an innovation in chemistry that has had, arguably, a greater impact on our society than any of the Chemistry Nobel Prize winning achievements in the past 40 year. But the man responsible, George Gray, is only known in select chemistry circles (apart from maybe a few travellers boarding a train traveling between London and Hull that bears his name). Yet you are almost certainly reading this blog on a device that owes its existence to Gray. For he and his small team, of just two post-docs, developed the first liquid crystals that were viable in liquid-crystal displays (LCDs). Forty years ago today his work was published, triggering a multi-billion dollar industry and making today’s abundance of flat screen devices possible.

The breakthrough that emerged from Gray’s small group was the synthesis of 4-Cyano-4′-pentylbiphenyl (5CB). It had a nematic liquid crystalline phase between 22C and 35C which made it the first material that could form the bases of viable LCDs.*


Just like so many great innovations getting to this point had been far from easy, largely because there was little appetite for funding research on molecules that, at the time, had no clear applications. Turning liquid-crystals from curiosities into the ubiquitous technologies that they are today required both a burning need for new displays and the foresight of one of the more colourful government ministers.

Enter John Stonehouse, Minister of State for Technology under the UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Stonehouse wanted a technology capable of producing flat screen colour displays (a good 30 years before LCD TVs became the norm) with the aim of replacing cathode ray tubes that were costing the Ministry of Defence colossal sums (more than the development costs of Concorde) in royalties. So in 1968 he set up a working group consisting of military brass, civil servants and scientists to find a suitable replacement technology. The way the contracts were distributed is a far cry from how things are done today. The story goes that at one of the group’s meetings liquid-crystals were proposed as a candidate. But the key speaker was unable to answer a question about why light from the projector generated such curious patterns as it reflected off the vials of liquid-crystals. There followed an embarrassingly long silence before a voice piped up from the back of the room exclaiming “I wonder if I can help”. That voice was George Gray’s and come the end of the meeting he and his team of chemists at the University of Hull were awarded the contract to deliver room temperature liquid-crystals.  That they did and the results were patented and published by 1973 with the first LCDs in commercial devices the following year. (Cyril Hilsum was chairing the session and he was recently filmed recounting his memory of the  meeting and the development of LCDs. You can watch it here )  

At one time the molecules that Gray invented accounted for over 90% of all the liquid-crystals in the world’s calculators, digital watches and LCD clocks. So what became of the money that flowed in via the patents? Well the Ministry of Defence owned most of the intellectual property and made a tidy sum which offset the money they were still paying for cathode ray tubes.  Meanwhile the University of Hull, like most UK academic institutions at the time, didn’t think it was its place to own intellectual property, so the remainder of the royalties went to Gray and his team. But Hull wasn’t left completely out of pocket, the MOD continued to invest in LCD research in Hull until the patents ran out in 1992.

As for Stonehouse he may well have been blessed with the foresight to back LCDs, but he wasn’t so hot with his own businesses. Shortly after the first LCD devices were being manufactured his clothes were found piled on a beach in Florida with no sign of his body. He had apparently committed suicide after a series of disastrous business ventures. In reality he had faked his own death and was winging his way to Australia to start a new life with his mistress. The law caught up with him, briefly mistook him for Lord Lucan before sentencing him to several years in gaol. As if that wasn’t enough intrigue for one man he also turned out to be a Czech spy!


1)  Gray, K.J. Harrison, J.A. Nash. New Family of Nematic Liquid Crystals for Displays, Electronic letters. 9:6. pp 130-131, 1973

2)   Hirohisa Kawamoto, The History of Liquid-Crystal Displays. PROCEEDINGS OF THE IEEE, 90: 4. pp 460-500.  2002


* A working range of 22 to 35C was not, of course, anywhere near sufficient for saleable LCD display.  That came about via a series of  mixtures of 5CB with new cyanobiphenyls which eventually settled on a quaternary mixture known as E7.

Composition of E7. From ‘The History of Liquid Crystal Displays’



Originally posted (as a slightly different version) in the Guardian.

By March 22, 2013 1 comment synthetic chemistry