Suicides in Science: A Search for Answers

SAN FRANCISCO—It’s not uncommon for one scientist to build on the work of another. But it’s rare for that research to spawn an organization dedicated to saving the lives of its subjects. For Molly Gleiser, a chemist at the University of California-Berke- ley, the idea for Suicide Prevention Among Scientists began with an 1984 article in Chemical and Engineering News that described a study of the causes of death among female chemists. One figure jumped out at her: the suici

Sep 21, 1987
Janet Basu

SAN FRANCISCO—It’s not uncommon for one scientist to build on the work of another. But it’s rare for that research to spawn an organization dedicated to saving the lives of its subjects.

For Molly Gleiser, a chemist at the University of California-Berke- ley, the idea for Suicide Prevention Among Scientists began with an 1984 article in Chemical and Engineering News that described a study of the causes of death among female chemists. One figure jumped out at her: the suicide rate for women chemists was five times the norm for American women.

Geiser has brought together a small group of chemists and behavioral scientists to investigate the factors that cause scientists to take their own lives. The organization’s first effort is a project to collect and analyze the case histories of chemists who have committed suicide (the rate for men, although not as high as for women, is still twice the national norm). The goal is to find ways to reduce suicide that apply to scientists in all disciplines.

The existence of data on chemists is unusual. Outside of a few studies of suicide among medical professionals, few scientific fields have been examined. But the body of literature is growing. The National Cancer Institute is expanding its 1969 study of mortality among American Chemical Society members, and preliminary findings from the Royal Society of Chemistry point to unusually high levels of suicide among male, but not female, chemists in Britain.

The American figures—particularly for women—are drawn from a small sample. Walrath found that, of 347 American women chemists known to have died between 1925 and 1979, 36 are believed to have been suicides. The expected number, based on age, sex and race, was 6.7. Gleiser has estimated that, if this higher rate were to be applied to today’s growing number of women chemists, there would be as many as five suicides each year. For men, she estimated, the annual figure may be as high as 45.

Now retired, Gleiser worked for many years as a physical chemist for industry in England and the United States, and has held academic posts at NUT and Berkeley. The suicide of a friend several years ago—”it shook me up quite a bit,” she recalled—led to her becoming a volunteer for a local suicide prevention network.

She believes that the data derived from chemists can offer valuable insights into the causes of suicide among all professionals. Chemists are a homogeneous group who are widely dispersed, she said, and the large numbers of both women and men members allow for meaningful comparisons with national rates.

Psychological Autopsies

The study, supported by donations, was designed with the aid of Gleiser’s board of advisers, who indude former American Chemical Society president Alan Nixon. The approach is similar to a psychological autopsy procedure in forensic medicine, in which Gleiser interviews colleagues, friends and— when it is not too intrusive—the family of the deceased. She has so far compiled case histories of 55 men and 22 women. All respondents are promised anonymity.

Why do chemists commit suicide? Gleiser and her advisers say they do not know yet. Richard Seiden, a behavioral scientist at Berkeley who specializes in suicide and who heads the group’s advisory board, said that the general hypothesis for suicides in a given profession is that the membera have access to a reliable means of killing themselves and are subject to stresses that lead to depression.

Chemists have access to and knowledge of toxins, of course. More than 40 percent of the suicides among chemists are accomplished with cyanide, a percentage far above the national average. “Cyanide is not the cause,” said Gleiser, “but it may be part of the chain of events. If we took away the cyanide, in some cases the tragedy might be averted.”

The major goal of Gleiser’s study is to identify the stresses that might lead people to take advantage of their access to a poison. Among the cases she has examined so far, the causes include insecurity about work, failure to get or continue research grants, and other career-related problems.

Among women, Gleiser noted that survivors often report difficulties in both their careers and per- sonal relationships. One woman, who was remembered by friends as warm but socially awkward, never married. Considered brilliant, she never acquired ajob commensurate with her abilities. In her early 40s, after a grant application was rejected, she killed herself with cyanide.

How can such suicides be averted? Gleiser and Seiden say that suicidal depression may be fleeting, and that a sympathetic listener may be enough to dispel the impulse. Institutional policies regarding employee mental health might include training to recognize and deal with depression, they said, but informal agreements among coworkers to help social outsiders might work just as well.

“Chemists are not unfriendly, but we’re on the shy side,” Gleiser says. “It’s a profession that doesn’t focus on people. Still it seems to me that in the time it takes to come up with the studied academic insult, one could just as well say ‘Good morning.’”

Basu is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

For more information, write Suicide Prevention Among Scientists, 1920 Bonita Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94704.