Island of Pathogens and Pulchritude
By Carol Huang
The East End of Long Island is known for many things. There’s the glamour of the Hamptons, the serenity of ShelterIsland, the surf scene of Montauk and the rustic charm of North Fork’s vineyards and farms. And then there is PlumIsland.
In 1954 the U.S. Department of Agriculture acquired the island to create a lab where some of the world’s most contagious animal diseases could be studied. The island has faced an image problem ever since. Over the last six decades, the 840-acre plot of land has been described as a prison for Nazi scientists, blamed as the source of Lyme disease and West Nilevirus, pegged as a good vacation spot for Hollywood serial killer Hannibal Lecter and starred in a 1997 novel by Nelson DeMille in which the island’s secrets lead to murder.
But long before rumors of bio-warfare experiments and animal mutants, and long before Jesse Ventura tried to storm the island in a chartered fishing boat,Plum Island was an idyllic isle known for its fresh breezes and bountiful fish. It is where some of the earliest shots of the American Revolution were fired, where scientists advanced one of the great achievements in veterinary medicine, and where a growing population of wildlife thrives in forests, wetlands and beaches that have been largely untouched by anyone outside the military or scientific communities in over a century.
Though access toPlum Island is restricted, some years ago the government began granting limited visits to local groups. One day last fall the Cutchogue-New Suffolk Historical Council, whose members included many retirees, boarded a ferry at Orient Point for a 10-minute ride to the island. As men in dark glasses watched from the shore, the group docked and was directed onto a white bus with vinyl seats. Minutes later they reached a building of red brick and glass, modestly landscaped and stockpiled with an extensive collection of infectious microbes. Inside, a small foyer displayed a case offering souvenir Plum Island hats, pictures of government officials including President Obama and a poster announcing it was time for flu shots.
The group entered a lecture room where Dr. Lawrence Barrett, director of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, explained the center’s role in protectingAmerica’s food supply. Ninety percent of the island’s work is focused on Foot and Mouth disease, which is so contagious that Congress decided the only place where live samples of the virus could be researched was a location off shore. Dr. Barrett said some viruses have few variations, or serotypes, making it easier to develop a vaccine. In contrast, there are seven serotypes of Foot-and-Mouth disease and 60 subtypes. “Are we gonna get a test on this?” someone yelled. Dr. Barrett chuckled politely. He said they are working on a recombinant vaccine for the disease that would be safe enough to manufacture on the mainland.
In July this year the vaccine was licensed, a milestone that follows the development of a temperature stable vaccine for Rinderpest by Plum Island epidemiologist Jeffrey Mariner in the 80s and 90s. The deadly cattle disease plagued civilizations for centuries, but Mariner’s vaccine helped rid the virus in the last pockets of Africa where Rinderpest existed, making it only the second disease in the world to be eradicated.
After Dr. Barrett spoke, Dr. Bill White, director of foreign animal disease diagnostics, elaborated on the science behind Plum Island’s role in preventing exotic animal diseases from entering the country. He talked about dry filters, serotypes, equivocal titers and polymerized chain reaction testing. After 30 minutes, he paused. “Does anyone need a break?” he asked the silent audience. “Does anyone need to stand up?” “I’m too weak to stand up!” a man responded.
The group was then taken to see a safety lab, where a young scientist explained the function of autoclaves, formaldehyde fumigation and HEPA filters that trap particles as small as 1/50th the width of human hair. He said anyone entering the building’s high containment areas must put on special garments.
“When you change, do you have to wear temporary underwear, too?” a woman asked.
“Yes,” the scientist replied.
The group moved to another lab where two veterinary microbiologists explained DNA sequences and proficiency panels. As they talked, some ladies began tittering in a corner where Dr. Chris Groocock was sharing memories of his days as a Plum Island scientist. Dr. Groocock, who’d joined the Cutchogue-New Suffolk Historical Council after retiring locally, said animal handlers atPlumIslandoften showered more than two dozen times a day as they moved between animals. “The handlers, after a while, just didn’t bother to put any clothes on, except for boots,” Dr. Groocock recalled.
Atnoonthe bus transported the group to a bluff overlooking Plum Gut, a turbulent stretch of water considered one of the world’s best spots to catch striped bass. Boats bounced on the sparkling currents below as feathery clouds drifted across the sky. A warm breeze blew as the group settled beside a two-story, granite lighthouse for lunch. The lighthouse was erected in 1827 and named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000. Its logs include entries by visitors such as President Grover Cleveland, who stopped in 1897 while fishing with New York banker Ed Benedict. According to “Long Island’s Lighthouses, Past and Present,” another group who visited onAug. 23, 1890, commemorated their stay by celebrating the hospitality of lighthouse keeper William Walker Wetmore: “Hurrah for Capt. Billy, his cider will knock you silly.”
Some of the first shots of the American Revolution were fired off the shores of Plum Island when George Washington sent Gen. Davis Wooster to defend the coast from British soldiers. On Aug.14, 1775, Wooster reported his men had exchanged fire with the British three days earlier as their war sloop sailed around Plum Island. Ruth Ann Bramson, president of the Oysterponds Historical Society, believes the incident was the first exchange of gunfire between the British and the Continental Army, as well as the first amphibious assault by an American army.
The island was again put to military use in 1897 with the construction ofFortTerry, one in a string of coastal defenses erected ahead of the Spanish-American War. The fort served through WWII and at its peak had housing for 700 enlisted men, a bakery, theater and railroad, whose rails still jut from one shore of the island where munitions where munitions were offloaded from ships.
As the tour passed Fort Terry’s silent, brick buildings, old artillery bunkers appeared in the wild vegetation surrounding the road like jungle ruins. The bus reached a windy cliff where seals sunned themselves on the rocks below and swam in the dark waves. The Riverhead Foundation has counted as many as 300 grey and harbor seals onPlumIslandin winter months, making the island potentially the largest spot inNew Yorkwhere seals haul themselves out of the water to rest. Surveys by the North Fork Audubon Society have recorded a rising number of birds using Plum Island, too. To date, 187 species have been spotted, including some listed as federally threatened or endangered, such as Roseate Terns, Bald Eagles, Northern Harrier hawks and piping plovers, a tiny shore bird whose total population numbers less than 6,500. Meanwhile, according to a report by the New York State Cultural Heritage Program this year, the island also has one of the state’s highest concentrations of rare plants.
Fromseal beachthe group traveled onto a peninsula jutting from the northeast corner of the island like an elephant’s trunk. Branches clawed at the bus, and the road disintegrated into broken asphalt, narrowing until it traversed a strip of land whose edges plunged steeply to a surf-pummeled shore. At a gun mount overlooking Gardiner’s Bay the bus stopped, and the group ascended plank stairs to a breathtaking view at the top. The sunlit sky seemed endless, and white gulls glided on air currents over the crashing surf below. “Can’t you just see having a nice glass of wine here?” a woman remarked, lifting her face to the sun.
It could very well be that summer homes will one day populate Plum Island. Plans to sell the island are inching forward with Congress’ decision to build a new animal disease lab in Kansas. More than 40 groups have joined the Preserve Plum Island coalition, which hopes to protect the history, flora and fauna massed in the island’s remote, haunting beauty. “It ought to be a preserve for wildlife. There ought to be opportunities for people to visit. To simply sell it to the highest bidder and pave it all over would be a very sad thing. We’ve got plenty of that on the eastern end ofLong Island,” said Bramson. Otherwise, says John Turner of thePreservePlumIslandcoalition, “We will have forever lost the opportunity of keeping this as a public asset.”