"Mr. Yuk" may retire, but he won't be gone
Mr. Yuk is retiring. Not the sticker, the man. Ever since the symbol for poison changed from a skull and crossbones to the lime green anti-smiley...
The Associated Press
Mr. Yuk is retiring. Not the sticker, the man.
Ever since the symbol for poison changed from a skull and crossbones to the lime green anti-smiley face about 30 years ago, a Seattle man has been called Mr. Yuk.
Dr. William Robertson has a sticker instead of his face on his name tag at the Washington Poison Center. His e-mail address is email@example.com. And his license plate reads Mr. Yuk.
So now that he's retiring as medical director of the Washington Poison Center, people aren't asking if he plans to spend more time playing tennis; they want to know if his alter-ego the sticker is leaving as well.
The answer? No. And although the organization based in North Seattle announced his impending retiring last November, Robertson points out that he has no plans to leave outright after 43 years at the helm.
"I'm not planning on retiring because there are too many interesting things going on," Robertson said.
Robertson, 81, actually has four part-time jobs he isn't retiring from, including teaching at the University of Washington Medical School, lobbying the Legislature on causes he believes in such as legible prescriptions, and writing for various medical newsletters.
Robertson helped pioneer the idea of poison centers and began his career as a toxicologist and pediatrician at the Columbus, Ohio, poison center in 1956. At that time, he had a telephone and a thousand index cards filled with antidotes to the most common reasons parents called when their kids ate something other than food.
"Those thousand cards used to be enough to answer 98 percent of the telephone calls," Robertson said.
The cards, which were created cooperatively by Chicago hospitals in the mid-1950s, were distributed nationally by the Surgeon General, enabling 700 poison centers to open around the country.
Today, modern technology has enabled those centers to consolidate down to about 60 physical locations while the database of information has grown to more than 3 million entries, Robertson said.
In the 1960s, adults started to call with their own concerns and now 45 percent of the calls come from grown-ups, he said.
In addition to teaching generations of pediatricians at the University of Washington, Robertson's other work that probably had the most impact involved medical safety.
In the 1960s, he pushed to get syrup of ipecac in home medicine cabinets to speed poison treatments across the nation. He has fought lead poisoning throughout his career. He lobbied for many years for distinctive markings on prescription medications and over-the-counter drugs. His most recent victory was the "anti-scribbling law," which mandated legible prescriptions beginning this past June.
During the 43 years he has worked at a Washington Poison Center, Robertson has seen childhood deaths from poisoning drop from 600 a year to less than 30 in this state, but he admits that most of the credit goes to child-resistant containers, not the poison center.
"I'd like to say that our treatments are that much better, but it's been prevention," he said.
And prevention includes the ubiquitous lime green "Mr. Yuk" sticker.
Robertson tells an amusing story of how Mr. Yuk came to Washington.
Before the anti-smiley face that looks like it just ate something "yucky" became the universal symbol for poison, a skull and crossbones was used to scare children away. But that was also the logo used by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
When the head of the Pittsburgh poison center went to the Pirates in 1971 to ask them to stop using the poison symbol, the team laughed but then agreed to help them find some money to pay for the development of a new symbol.
Robertson heard about Mr. Yuk at a national meeting in 1973 and immediately got permission to be the first to use it outside of Pittsburgh. It caught on quickly in the entire Pacific Northwest region. A consumer survey six months later showed a 96 percent recognition rate.
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