Smoke screen

Why did a Philip Morris scientist kill herself by drinking nicotine?

By Dan Zegart

Published June 6, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

It had snowed, an event rare enough in Richmond that it seemed to put a strain on everybody and everything. Diana Dollinger had been holed up in her apartment virtually all weekend, scribbling notes, worried she was getting fat. These were neurotic obsessions. She was in fact an attractive, svelte twenty-eight-year-old, an entry-level researcher well thought of by other chemists at Philip Morris.

She left behind a few relatives in the Richmond area when she died very early one Monday in January 1982, but no one claimed to know why she had drunk liquid nicotine, 100 percent pure, straight out of a brown bottle she'd smuggled home from the Philip Morris Research Center. She died a death experienced by several rats at the research center, but few people anywhere in the world. The victim loses control of its limbs and collapses as the bowels and bladder discharge, and the end comes in a wrenching, gasping convulsion.

Diana Dollinger would have had to go to some trouble to get the brown bottle, because nicotine wasn't used in the Physical Research Division building where she was part of a unit that analyzed how tobacco burns, an essential but unglamorous branch of the company's product research. It got William Farone, then-director of applied research at Philip Morris, who supervised Dollinger's unit and others, wondering whether there was a message in her method.

"If you've got a choice, why pick that particular chemical?" he said to another scientist. Indeed, a chemist at Philip Morris would have been among a select few in the country who could appreciate just how nasty nicotine really is. Many at the research center learned the hard way that merely leaving a bottle of the clear liquid open in a warm room brings on a wave of coughing and gagging, followed in short order by dizziness and nausea. A few drops on a small cut on the skin are fatal within minutes unless the victim gets a shot of mecamylamine, which blocks nicotine's effect and is another thing that would be found at Philip Morris and very few other places.

Despite the bizarre choice of poison, there were no stories in the press, and no details in Dollinger's obituary. All of which led to speculation inside the research compound about a cover-up. This of course was more than a decade before nicotine became a routine subject in the media as the Food and Drug Administration tried to reclassify cigarettes as delivery devices for the drug. In 1982, although the scientific community was studying nicotine in a preliminary way, there was precious little awareness of it outside the cigarette companies. It would have looked terrible if the active ingredient in cigarettes was publicly identified as a poison so strong that a woman could kill herself with it.

However, to Farone, this line of thinking led to nothing definite. He heard from another Philip Morris chemist and boyfriend of Dollinger's that she had developed moral scruples about her employer, that she felt so-called safe cigarette work, which concentrated on removing the poisons from cigarette smoke, wasn't really taken seriously at the company. But the boyfriend later denied these statements, and said simply that Dollinger had a history of suicide attempts.

In the end it didn't really matter whether the Dollinger suicide was intended to send a message or was an act of private desperation. For the few dozen at the Philip Morris Research Center privy to the details, the circumstances of her death were profoundly distressing and ignited a debate that Farone remembers "very quickly turned into a microcosm of this broader discussion about are you being used or are you doing something good -- all of those kinds of issues that go through your mind when you're working for a cigarette company."

Farone was one of a handful of scientists within whom those questions caused a dissonance that swelled until eventually he turned on Philip Morris, as did Victor DeNoble, a psychologist performing cutting-edge experiments on the brain effects of nicotine. But for DeNoble the doubts came later. He didn't agonize over Diana Dollinger's death that morning in 1982. The suicide was part of a class of peculiar occurrences at Philip Morris that DeNoble had learned to overlook. He was too deep into his research, and besides, his work was explicitly dedicated to producing a safer cigarette.

"I don't know what happened in the press, you didn't see anything in there," he remembered later. "I think we were told it would be handled by the company, and if anyone were to ask us, that's what we were to say."

DeNoble enjoyed his work at Philip Morris, though he viewed himself as unlike other researchers there. DeNoble likes to point out that he was the son of a plumber, and had it not been for a few lucky breaks, he would never have gone to graduate school in psychology, nor wound up at Philip Morris. But humble origins or no, DeNoble was a brilliant researcher and his plain quality of speech and strong Long Island accent did him no harm whatsoever at Philip Morris, or at the pharmaceutical firms he joined after he left the company.

DeNoble had been scooped up and pressed into service at a time when Philip Morris was determinedly scouring the nation's universities and corporations for top-flight talent, especially biology, biochemistry, and psychology, and he joined a cast of stars, a group advised by Nobel laureates.

He was then a post-doctoral fellow in psychology suffering the combined rigors of climate and poverty at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis. An expert on drug dependence, DeNoble was studying how animals self-administer addictive substances, as part of a program sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. He was twenty-nine but had already published important papers, one of which described how monkeys dosed themselves orally with pentobarbital, a long-acting sleeping pill, and alcohol. This was important because most self-administration work had been done intravenously, while alcoholics, pill-heads, and many others take their drugs by mouth. In the seventies, the University of Minnesota was the proving ground for the techniques NIDA would standardize for use in classifying addictive substances, and in fact was the premier academic institution doing such work. For a young hotshot studying drug dependence, this was where the action was.

In the winter of 1979, DeNoble got a phone call from William Dunn, Jr., the manager of the behavioral research laboratory at the Philip Morris Research Center. Dunn made it clear he was deeply impressed with DeNoble's work in behavioral pharmacology. Not only was Dunn intimately familiar with DeNoble's published work, he knew about ongoing experiments DeNoble had yet to complete, much less publish, which flattered DeNoble, though he later thought it strange. Dunn wanted to hire DeNoble to examine an addictive drug that had so far received little attention in the academy: nicotine. DeNoble didn't know it, but Dunn's views on cigarettes and addiction had been forged long ago. Dunn wrote unequivocally to colleagues in 1972 that nicotine is the reason people smoke, and urged them to "think of the cigarette pack as a storage container for a day's supply of nicotine" and the cigarette "as a dispenser for a dose unit of nicotine."

DeNoble initially told Dunn he wasn't interested. Like anyone in the life sciences, he was highly skeptical about working for a cigarette company. But after realizing that Dunn was offering not only a significant career opportunity but a ticket out of frigid Minnesota, he agreed to visit Richmond, where he learned of the nicotine analog program, a massive effort begun in the mid-seventies. As Dunn and others explained, the company was synthesizing molecules similar to nicotine, hoping to find one that would provide the drug's addictive pleasure without its stimulant effect on heart rate. Company officials made a humanitarian pitch that was hard for DeNoble to resist. In the United States alone there were over 100,000 deaths a year from cigarette-related heart disease, the majority due to gases in smoke that promote arterial clogging. However, nicotine too was thought to be an important culprit, since it caused blood vessels to contract, further straining aging, blocked coronary arteries. Hundreds of nicotine-like molecules had already been created at the research compound's sophisticated chemistry lab, but Philip Morris needed DeNoble to test their effect on animals, and, just as important, to build a model of how nicotine worked in the brain. The company had the capability to denicotinize tobacco, and replacing nicotine with an analog would remove a significant health risk from cigarettes, Dunn explained.

At the end of the day, Dunn seemed pleased with DeNoble.

"See you in April," he said as they shook hands and said goodbye. DeNoble replied he was still not convinced he would take the job.

"You will," said Dunn, smiling gently.

Dunn was right. Not only was the talent at the Philip Morris Research Center world class, but the company was famous for spending money on science. DeNoble said he wouldn't come unless he got a 40 percent raise and $700,000 for his lab. The company offered to double his salary and let him spend $2 million his first year. They would build him a state-of-the-art lab from scratch according to his specifications. He could hire anyone he wanted. DeNoble and his wife moved to Richmond.

Within eighteen months, DeNoble's experiments, which would eventually employ a hundred rats, were so successful that he brought on another superstar academic scientist as co-researcher. Paul Mele was a close friend from DeNoble's grad school days at Adelphi University on Long Island and a specialist in the effect of drugs on the chemical function of the brain. Mele was a physician's son, a designer of elegant experiments, painstaking where DeNoble was prone to jump ahead.

Philip Morris probably didn't count on an uncanny synergy between DeNoble and Mele that produced over a dozen major experimental initiatives in four years. Jack Henningfield, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse's Addiction Research Center during the nineties, later said it was as though they had packed twelve years of research into four. Within eight months of Mele's arrival in Richnond the pair had isolated two active nicotine analogs, neither of which increased heart rate.

It was, in many ways, a dream job. They were not long out of graduate school, yet had unlimited money and complete freedom -- no students to teach, no need to chase down grants -- to work on a problem at the frontier of science. If they succeeded, they would have contributed in a historic way to making a product that threatened the health of hundreds of millions of people less dangerous.

The importance of the analog program meant DeNoble and Mele were allowed to be the bad boys of the research compound.

"We were the most anti-establishment -- everybody there was wearing suits and ties. Our lab was top secret. You couldn't get into it unless we let you in. Nobody else had animals. We didn't have to answer to anybody. We were literally out of control. We were there, generating data, walking around in blue jeans, with lawyers in suits around, with rat shit in our pockets.

"It was like 'Animal House.' We were so loud. Paul and I used to get into these great arguments. It was so loud that on our floor there was a director, and he actually had to move to a different floor because he couldn't work because we were yelling," DeNoble said. (The director was Bill Farone.)

The yelling was the least of it. The Rolling Stones thundered from among the steel behavioral chambers and surgery tables courtesy of DeNoble's boom box. With his long brown hair and cocky air, Mele was even more anti-establishment than DeNoble. After some criticism of their informal attire, Mele and DeNoble installed an "emergency tie case" over which was written, "In case vice president shows up, break glass." Taped all over the walls were syringes filled with mecamylamine, to guard against nicotine exposure. At the front of the lab, visitors were greeted by a huge stuffed rat dangling by a spring from the ceiling with a giant hypodermic needle jammed into its head.

In April 1980, when DeNoble hired on, there was a good bit of the bizarre sprinkled over the research center's patina of high purpose. Smoking was permitted, indeed, encouraged, everywhere. Every morning the "cigarette girl" dropped a free pack of smokes on each researcher's desk. DeNoble remembered standing with Jim Charles, a toxicologist and company stalwart, who was peering at cancerous lesions on a rat's back while he sucked thoughtfully on a Merit. "I turned to Paul and said, 'This guy's got to be brain dead,'" DeNoble remembered. But Charles was simply living the company's unofficial motto, engraved on every employee's biweekly paycheck: "This is tobacco money."

Dan Zegart

Dan Zegart is a freelance investigative journalist. A ten-year newspaper veteran, he has written, reported or produced for Ms., The Nation, Playboy, The New York Times, PBS Frontline, ABC TV Directions, ABC TV 20/20, and CBS Evening News. He is the author of two books, Civil Warriors: The Legal Siege on the Tobacco Industry, and Your Father’s Voice: Letters for Emmy about Life with Jeremy - and Without Him after 9/11.

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