Sunday, June 30, 2019

Part 2: Lab 257: The Disturbing Government's Secret Story of the Germ Laboratory.....Genesis...The Age of Science

Lab 257

Part 2
The Safest Lab
in The World
Plum Island will permit the Army Chemical Corps to execute required projects in connection with imported agents . . . that might become of Biological Warfare significance. 
A few years before the Plum Island Animal Disease Center’s dedication day in 1956, the United States launched its first biological warfare program. A glimpse into the past reveals a surprising truth: Plum Island wasn’t exactly what it appeared to be to the public. 

The gory details were kept secret at the time, but America’s germ warfare goals—national defense—were heralded by the nation’s leaders and press. A New York Times editorial in 1945 mused, “When the scientific story of the war is written, we have here an epic that rivals that of the atomic bomb.” The paper was right. A few months after the United States demonstrated its atomic warfare prowess on Japan, it announced the development of a second weapon: killer microscopic germs. While forty-five people participated in the British biological warfare effort, the American version involved four thousand men and women. The Army ran the innocuously titled “War Research Service” (WRS) program at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland. Civilian chemist George W. Merck directed the work, advised by scientists from the nation’s top universities. 

These men were motivated by the threats of the times. In ways, they were no different from the atomic fathers Einstein and Oppenheimer. Theodor Rosebury, a Columbia University microbiologist who worked on the WRS projects, said, “We resolved the ethical question just as other equally good men resolved the same question at Oak Ridge and Los Alamos.” 

The aims of the biological warfare program didn’t trouble Dr. Albert Webb, a Fort Detrick scientist in the early years. “That aspect never worried me personally. People had been killing people for millennia. Whether you hit him over the head with a club, stab him with a spear, or give him a disease he might get anyway—let’s not balk at that.” One has to look at the whole picture and understand the enemy of the time, says Webb. “We knew other nations, Germany and Japan—and Russia—were working on this, and in self-defense, we had to know what the potential was. Maybe it’s not a popular thought today, but I still feel that it was necessary.” 

Dr. Edwin Fred, Dr. Webb’s ultimate boss and the patriarch of WRS, was a veterinarian, as were Merck’s top aide, Colonel Arvo Thompson, Fort Detrick founder Dr. Ira Baldwin, and Dr. William Hagan (who, in addition to spawning Plum Island along with Erich Traub, helped Baldwin establish Fort Detrick). Like MDs, they were trained in infectious disease. But unlike their medical counterparts, the vets weren’t ethically bound by an oath that began: “First, do no harm. . . .” Dr. Webb recalled the mind-sets of the two branches of medicine. “The MDs had this unresolved medical conflict—they weren’t supposed to help kill people. Vets, I think, were much more ready than MDs,” he says. “There’s obviously not the same feelings about the death of their subjects. The mass killing of animals for food is an accepted part of our culture.” Unlikely as it seems, the veterinarian was ideally suited for germ warfare research and development. 

Before the attack on Pearl Harbor, a proud isolationism combined with the belief that biological warfare was pure fantasy left the United States woefully unprepared for—and fully exposed to—a real threat. Britain, Canada, Germany, Russia, Japan, and France had initiated germ warfare programs decades earlier. But America made up for the lost time. By war’s end it built the largest and most advanced program of them all. 

War Research Service launched “Project No. 1” in 1942. Dr. Hagan was chosen to take the lead. Dean of the Cornell University Veterinary College, Dr. Hagan was an expert on Bacillus anthracis, or anthrax, a disease of sheep and cattle. Also known as woolsorter’s disease, because the germ occasionally infected people shearing wool off sheep, it was a rare human affliction—but an exceptionally lethal one. Merck thought it would make a superb bioweapon and commissioned it as W.R.S’s first priority. Anthrax is virulent, but it carries a minimal threat of a boomerang because it is not contagious person to person. 

Dr. Hagan tested many sample strains of anthrax (which WRS codenamed “N”) in a four-foot-tall glass apparatus called a vinegar tower. Under the right conditions, anthrax rolls up into a ball and hibernates, or spores, and becomes resistant to threatening environmental conditions like cold temperatures. When returned to a hospitable environment, the hardy spores unfold and come back to life. Hagan found that Strain No. 99 sporulated and retained its high pathogenicity, or ability to spread disease. Dr. Hagan concentrated, purified, and dried Strain No. 99 into enough powder to make a biological bomb. In a small lab in Ithaca, New York, in 1943, Dr. Hagan created the most virulent, concentrated brand of anthrax on Earth. Anthrax became the most important biological agent developed by the American biological warfare program, and Hagan gained the dubious title of the father of weapons-grade anthrax. Late in the war, Great Britain requested samples of Hagan’s anthrax, naming it “Hagan’s Best.” 

After the war, Hagan became a driving force behind Plum Island’s creation (Nazi germ warfare scientist Erich Traub would be the other). He used his clout with Congress, the Army, and the USDA to lead the charge for an island virus laboratory. He inspected Plum Island personally and lent his imprimatur to its selection. Upon its inauguration, Hagan bequeathed to the island twelve vials of “N,” enough to kill about a million people, considering it takes between 4,500 and 8,000 organisms to cause an infection. To this day, Plum Island denies ever hosting anthrax or working with it, though a now-declassified catalog of deadly germs imported to Plum Island in the early 1950s clearly shows that twelve vials of “N” have been kept in its freezers since the very beginning. 

Presumably, Dr. Hagan believed strongly that his secret wartime research would contribute to a greater good. However, the consequences of “Hagan’s Best”—particularly in light of the deadly 2001 anthrax attacks— call into question that belief. 
☣   ☠   ☣   ☠   ☣      ☣
At a full cabinet meeting at the White House on January 23, 1948, Agriculture Secretary Clinton Anderson briefed President Harry S Truman on the need for an exotic animal disease laboratory, and on the Mexican virus outbreak. Truman listened to Secretary Anderson and nodded. Two months later, the Soviet Union blockaded all roads, rivers, and rails from the American and British zones of Berlin, forcing food and supplies to be airlifted in. Then the Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb. America had a new enemy. 

“Especially in view of present world unrest, and with biological warfare a distinct possibility,” the USDA told Congress, an island research laboratory “would be a major asset in repelling or mitigating such danger.” In April 1948, Congress passed Public Law 48-496, which established the framework for Plum Island: 

The Secretary of Agriculture is authorized to establish research laboratories . . . for research and study, in the United States or elsewhere, of foot-and-mouth disease and other animal diseases . . . provided that no live virus of foot-and-mouth disease may be introduced for any purpose into any part of the mainland of the United States except coastal islands separated therefrom by waters navigable for deepwater navigation and which shall not be connected with the mainland by any tunnel.... 

USDA engineers and architects armed with magnifying glasses analyzed maps of America’s coastline, searching for the right place. Two weeks after the law passed, the USDA found the perfect coastal island: Prudence Island, off the coast of Rhode Island. The USDA had looked at many other sites, including Fort Terry, Plum Island, a surplus island fortress of 840 acres off the east end of Long Island. 

Meanwhile, the Army was separately fixing its sights on Fort Terry as a germ warfare island laboratory. At the last minute, it abruptly canceled the surplus sale of the island to Suffolk County and invited the USDA—which watched in horror as wealthy Newporters, after forming the Anti-Prudence Island Laboratory Committee, killed the aggies’ plan for nearby Prudence Island—to join them. Debating the need for Plum Island in the U.S. Senate, New York’s senators, Irving Ives and Herbert Lehman, demanded that a provision in the law be included to protect the local New York community: 

At a location to be selected by the Secretary of Agriculture after full hearings of which reasonable public notice shall be given to those who may reside within twenty-five miles from the island selected. 

Senator Kenneth McKellar from Tennessee, the Appropriations Committee chairman, expressed his understanding of the public hearings provision for the record. “I think it is the legislative intent,” he said, “that if a majority of the people are opposed to it, then under no circumstances would the Department [of Agriculture] establish the laboratory.” 

As their “reasonable public notice” given, the USDA placed ads in the newspapers one week before the Plum Island hearings. Despite the short notice, 1,544 people objected through sixteen petitions, written statements, and telegrams. Recorded opinions ran three to one against the laboratory. An examination of the USDA’s internal files reveals very few supported the plan. The five local dairies urged “all civic-minded citizens to fight against the menace to our community interest.” The Greenport Oyster Growers’ Protective Association said the pollution from its sewage would tarnish the “clarity and wholesomeness” of the oyster beds.1 The Long Island Association, an esteemed body of business leaders, denounced the selection of “Pest Island, in the midst of a recreational area during a post-war suburban boom” and the manner in which the hearings were handled—“arbitrarily in conduct,” with “too short a time given” for notice. 
1 After the hearings, Doc Shahan would say the sewage “ought to enrich marine life because there’s so much organic material in it.” Known as Blue Point oysters (after Blue Point, Long Island), Long Island oysters had been farmed by European settlers in coastal waters since the 1600s. But by the 1970s, coastal development, pollution, and new parasites had depleted oyster populations. One foreign parasite, MSX, found its way into the Long Island Sound, and by the millennium it had wiped out 76 percent of the oysters in the Sound. 
“Positively outrageous,” cried one resident in the local newspaper, who added a foreboding message. “Nature has a way of doing things that scientists do not or cannot anticipate. Who knows whether some pollution of the waters may occur, or whether the disease may be carried by flies or mosquitoes.” Another asked, “Why should the farmers, the fishermen, and the summer residents be placed in jeopardy for the sake of an industry unrelated to this area?” And yet another wrote, “The action of your department establishes a plague spot in our beautiful vacation land. After hoof-and-mouth disease—then what?” 

Secretary of Agriculture Brannan “selected” Plum Island on July 28, 1952. “Views expressed... were divided concerning the location,” he said, but everyone recognized the need for such a facility somewhere. The USDA’s fuzzy logic held that 99 percent of the population fully supported the lab, since only 1 percent vocally objected. The timing and manner of the public hearings point to a far different calculation: 99 percent of the people were not at all aware of the USDA’s laboratory plan or their public hearings. Those who knew of the plan vehemently opposed their government, and the government won by stifling public opinion and by keeping the true purpose for Plum Island secret. 

In fact, the Army had awarded a secret construction bid to build a germ warfare lab on June 18, a full month before the selection hearings began. Worried locals’ fears were justified: the hearings were rigged. 

Edward L. Bernays, the father of public relations, once defined his art as the “engineering of public consent.” On Plum Island, the USDA pulled off a PR masterpiece. “It will become a research center known throughout the world...a source of income, employment, and a point of pride in the community,” the USDA heralded in its hearings pamphlet. Over time, Plum Island would indeed become known, though perhaps not for the reasons they had hoped for. 

The U.S. military had a special plan for Plum Island. 

In 1951, the Joint Chiefs of Staff determined that “the destruction of the enemy’s food supply by the use of anti-animal Biological Warfare agents would be strategic in its effect.” In a long war of attrition and “a front in Europe stabilized far to the East”—so as not to destroy the food of Allied Western Europe—“it might then be to our definite advantage to initiate a vigorous anti-crop and anti-animal campaign and weaken the Soviet will to resist and encourage defection.” 

The Soviets were “doing a considerable amount of work” in this area because they understood that “famine . . . provides a real threat.” The time to act was now. “Immediate action should be taken,” the Joint Chiefs said, “to procure an island test-site where all types of hot agents could be tested with greater freedom and an animal laboratory could be established.... This would also obviate the restriction imposed by law prohibiting work on certain animal diseases within the continental limits of the U.S.” The military ordered Army veterinarian Colonel Donald L. Mace, Doc Shahan’s partner in a 1948 virus eradication campaign in Mexico, to begin a “cooperative project” with the USDA and the Army on Plum Island, one that would be “feasible and of potential mutual benefit.” The USDA would be employed as a cover to sell the idea to the New York community. 

Five top secret projects were approved for the germ warfare island: 
4-11-02-051 Miscellaneous exotic diseases 
4-11-02-052 Rift Valley fever 
4-11-02-053 African swine fever 
4-11-02-054 Foot-and-mouth disease 
4-11-02-055 Rinderpest 

Army surveyors landed on a deserted Plum Island in late 1951. They set up windsocks and fans and tested wind speed. They found prevailing winds from the southwest. That was good news, because if germs from their tests escaped off island they would tend to blow east, into the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean, or south into Gardiner’s Bay, and dissipate, at least in theory. The surveyors also charted a regional population map, drawing radius circles around Plum Island at ten-, twenty-five-, and fifty-mile increments. Inside those circles were the Hamptons villages to the south, the Long Island Expressway (then under construction) to the west, and coastal Connecticut to the north. These would be the fallout zones if a biological accident occurred while the wind was blowing the wrong way. 

At Dr. Hagan’s urging, the Army rehabilitated the old mine storage building but retained its fungible-sounding name: Building No. 257. By August 1954, over one hundred large animals—horses, cattle, sheep, and swine—milled about in outdoor pens set up in the World War I-era artillery bunkers, and scientists used one thousand mice and guinea pigs each month. The bunkers were fitted with corrals, metal railings, gratings, “dip vats,” walk-through sprayers, water bins, and feeding troughs. The sight of animals idling in cavernous concrete complexes that looked like ancient Mayan Indian ruins was a glimpse into a futuristic stone age. On small creatures and in culture dishes, work with hot viruses in Building No. 257, now simply called Lab 257, was performed in “gloveboxes,” designed at Fort Detrick. Each steel enclosed chamber had riveted glass windows and was fitted with thick black rubber gloves that reached deep inside for experiments. 
☠   ☣   ☠   ☣   ☠   ☣   
Activating Plum Island as a full-time germ warfare island presented a number of “pressing problems,” according to Army records. Foremost was the sheer difficulty of constructing the unique facility on an ocean-exposed island not connected to the mainland by bridge or tunnel. Further complicating the situation, the longshoremen ferrying the construction materials to the island went on strike, and the building laborers refused to cross their picket line. This significantly delayed the project. Recruitment of scientists from mainland Fort Detrick wasn’t easy. “I went up there for a job interview,” remembers microbiologist William Patrick, “and the weather was terrible—cold, foggy, and just horrible. I went over on that damn boat, got seasick, and said to myself, ‘This is not for me.’ ” Patrick declined Colonel Mace’s offer and stayed at Fort Detrick. “The weather did me in—no question about it.”2 Dr. Al Webb, who occasionally came up from Fort Detrick to visit Doc Shahan, remembers the ferry. “I remember thinking, ‘This is a hell of a way to go to work!’ ” He saw firsthand why Patrick and others rejected invitations to Plum Island. “If the wind was blowing up the Sound, or it was drizzling or snowing, you might think it was pretty grim, too.” 
2 Patrick continued working at Fort Detrick for twenty-five years. Today he’s one of the nation’s top experts on germ warfare. 
With all the delays, not much germ warfare research was accomplished. And the importance of that research was suddenly called into question. The Joint Chiefs found that a war with the U.S.S.R. would best be fought with conventional and nuclear means, and biological warfare against humans— not against food animals. Destroying the food supply meant having to feed millions of starving Russians after winning a war. The Army was moving in too many biological warfare directions at once, and it was time to move anti-animal and anticrop biological warfare to “other appropriate agencies of the government.” The Army asked the secretary of defense to order them off Plum Island. 

As Lab 257 neared completion in the spring of 1954, President Eisenhower approved an agreement between the Departments of Defense and Agriculture at a National Security Council meeting. Mace was ordered to “pursue a minimal, yet forceful, research program at Fort Terry during the Fiscal Year 1954”: 

The mission of Fort Terry [Plum Island] has been changed... from one which encompassed studies on various exotic animal diseases to determine both their offensive and defensive potentialities as biological warfare agents to one which pertains only to the defensive aspects of foot-and-mouth and rinderpest diseases. 

A declassified top-secret report stated, just before the turnover, that “even though Department of the Army plans contemplated deactivation of Fort Terry, the assistant chief chemical officer for biological warfare at Camp Detrick will retain responsibilities in the anti-animal biological warfare field.” Hardly did the Army “up and leave,” as the USDA presently maintains. As time wore on, it became easier for the USDA to repeat the mantra that it had nothing to do with the Army when both were on Plum Island; that there were two labs; that each agency “did its own thing;” that the USDA never so much as looked at the Army soldiers. 

Photographs excavated from the National Archives belie those assertions. 

Penned on the reverse of a curled-up black-and-white photograph is the notation LAB. BLDG. 257. FEB 2 1954 is stamped in the lower left-hand corner. Standing at a bench the size of a dining room table, under the fluorescent light fixtures in a windowless, tiled room, are four men in starched white lab coats. They are crowded around a tall, boyish-looking man who is turning on a cylindrical heater, upon which sits a large flask containing a clear liquid. The man at the end of the table is leaning over, watching in earnest, with his arm stretched out on the lab bench, clutching an unlit pipe backward. The notes on the back of the snapshot continue: “Left to Right: Lt. Col. Don L. Mace, Dr. O. N. Fellowes, Dr. J. J. Callis, Dr. H. L. Bachrach and Dr. M. S. Shahan.” The first two scientists were Army, and the other three were USDA. An Army officer on Plum Island at that time remembers the scene as typical of many “demonstrations” held in Lab 257. Often, he says, Dr. Fothergill, Fort Detrick’s scientific director, would fly up and “see what we were doing and how we were doing it, from technical to safety measures. Many of those exotic agents were a real tricky thing up there on Long Island.” 

Two more dust-caked photographs preserved in the National Archives each picture a man seated alone at a metal office desk, with a pen held in his right hand, peering into the camera lens. Behind each man’s right is the same three-shelf, glass-enclosed bookcase; above it, a framed picture of bulls charging across an open swath of country. Behind each man’s left shoulder is the same photograph of la Comisión Mejicana-Americana para la Erradicación de la Fiebre Aftosa (the 1948 Mexico virus campaign). On the desk is an inbox tray, a stamp, and a quill-pen cup. Colonel Donald L. Mace is in one of the photos, and the USDA’s Dr. Maurice S. “Doc” Shahan is in the other. There are no other differences that distinguish the photos, shot in the exact same setting, dated the exact same day and same year. Clearly there was a USDA-Army relationship. 

Retired Major Luke H. West, an Alabaman inducted at Fort McClellan in 1941, was the Fort Terry top-secret control and security officer on Plum Island. Major West devised a scheme of color-coded security cards to enter the lab compound and conducted armed patrols of the compound and island perimeters. Although only a single laboratory report describing USDA’s work for the Chemical Corps is publicly available, Major West remembers “at least twenty-five to fifty” research reports coming across his desk before they were mimeographed for Colonel Mace and sent down to Fort Detrick. West wouldn’t elaborate on the contents of those reports. 
☠   ☣   ☣   ☣   ☣   ☣   ☠
Did the Army’s departure from Plum Island change anything? The Army may have shipped its files back to Fort Detrick, but Colonel Mace left something of infinite value behind—the germs. The “defensive” germ research performed by the men from Agriculture would be extrapolated by “standardizing” the virus into a powder and placing it in Air Force cluster bombs. It didn’t matter that the USDA told the public its research was only defensive—it was of dual use anyway. The USDA took beneficial control over the Army freezers (the 134 strains of 14 viruses) and did whatever it pleased with them. With the arsenal left behind, research continued unchecked. 

Plum Island was now far less safe. Major West and his Army soldiers no longer patrolled the island with military weaponry. As the Army went, so too went its scientific expertise, its regimen, and its deep pockets of financial resources. Now, Plum Island was a USDA site—and it would have to compete with farm-belt states and their powerful lobbies in Congress over a limited pot of agriculture funds. Unlike military installations that enjoyed the backing of enthusiastic congressmen and senators, Plum Island would have little support from elected officials, most of whom still chafed over the harsh maneuvers employed to establish the laboratory in their midst. 

The USDA had control now, running not one, but two high-hazard biological laboratories on Plum Island. This was the same USDA whose very competence Congress previously questioned. 

Only time would tell whether the veterinarians could handle such great responsibility on their own. 
☣   ☠   ☠   ☠   ☠   ☠   ☣
The first microbiology work on exotic viruses at Plum Island was performed by USDA men hired by the animal branch of the U.S. biological warfare program. 

Plum Island’s first lab experiment was also another first—its first lab accident. 

On July 21, 1954, three weeks after the Army transferred the island to the USDA, an angry cow coughed a glob of mucus into the unprotected face of a lab worker, known as “FW.”3 The previous day, FW had injected the cow’s tongue with the New Jersey strain of highly contagious vesicular stomatitis virus, a germ probably enhanced by Erich Traub during his days working with the USDA. FW went home early and climbed into bed, ill with acute flu like symptoms and chills. By 7:00 p.m., FW’s temperature had spiked to 102 degrees; yellow lesions appeared on his sore throat. He plummeted into malaise and depression. The signs were clear: FW had contracted the animal virus. Hearing the news, FW’s Plum Island colleagues saw a window of opportunity. They placed a call to FW’s wife—who happened to be a registered nurse—in the name of science. Before FW took a heavy dose of Terramycin, prescribed by the family physician, they asked his wife to collect blood and saliva, and swab the back of his throat with a Q-tip. She complied. The samples were stowed in her refrigerator and later ferried to Plum Island. 
3 FW is the notation in the records. There is little personal information available about him. He was probably a locally hired laboratory technician. 
Assistant Director Dr. Jerry Callis took FW’s blood samples, spun them down in an ultracentrifuge, and stored the human serum in a flame sealed glass ampoule for future use. Then the man’s virus-rich blood cells were injected into chicken eggs. This killed the embryos, drowning them in their own blood. The new “FW Strain” was passed through four successive chicken egg embryos and then isolated again; antibiotics were found to have no medicinal effect. The first published research abstract of the animal disease laboratory carries an incongruous title: The isolation of virus from the blood of man. The report dryly notes, “The infection contracted by FW occurred . . . in a newly constructed laboratory.... Past experience in other laboratories has shown the dangers associated with infectious materials inhaled or deposited accidentally in the eyes or nasal passages.” There is no mention in the report of a safety violation or, more important, the need for revised safety procedures to prevent the human infection that sickened FW. But the USDA scientists had stumbled upon vesicular stomatitis as a promising incapacitating germ weapon. The Army was pleased with the USDA’s (inadvertent) human field testing. 
With a troublesome “test run” under its belt, Plum Island was ready to handle the real thing. For the first time, exotic animal germs would be unleashed on United States soil. In eerie silence, the two young scientists, Drs. Callis and Howard Bachrach, looked on with reverence as veteran USDA man Dr. George Cottral slowly and carefully unlocked the virus vault, unstrapped the box, unscrewed the canister, and carefully uncorked the ampoules of hot germs. No accidents this time. On with the work. 

In their mandarin-collared white lab coats, the lanky Callis and the stumpy, bespectacled Bachrach bent over the flasks, neatly lined up on the long lab bench, stirring and shaking the concoctions, holding test tubes up to the fluorescent light, scribbling observations and mathematical equations on their pads. Any changes in color? Consistency? Evaporation? All were signs of microbiological reaction. They took samples, streaked them on a slide, peered into the microscope, and fiddled with the focus knob. 

Blood serum samples of twenty-seven calves, seven cows, ten bulls, and thirty-eight steers were set out in dishes and then injected with brucellosis bacteria and foot-and-mouth disease virus to test immune actions and reactions. They had to be extra careful with the brucellosis, because it caused an ailment of fevers, sweating, weakness, headaches, malaise, anorexia, abdominal pain, constipation, rigors, enlargement of the spleen, and coughing— and lasted from four to eight weeks.4 Wary after the FW incident, the scientists escaped harm by wiping down surfaces and glassware constantly with a generous helping of Roccal solution, a chemical that kills microbes on contact. 
4 In fact, this strain was a fancy of Fort Detrick. President Eisenhower had previously approved the development of “incapacitating agents,” germs that severely sickened but did not kill. For that reason, brucellosis and Rift Valley fever virus, both with low mortality rates, were heavily researched at Fort Detrick.
The experiments yielded the type of results Doc Shahan and the Army could only have dreamed of. 

The Age of Science 
Germs just don’t have a chance! 
Boundless optimism. No other phrase captures the feeling of 1950s America. The United States had saved the world from totalitarianism, and its mainland shores had not suffered the physical wreckage of war. Eisenhower, the revered general who had led the Normandy invasion and crushed Hitler and Nazi Germany, was now in the White House. Thousands of returning GIs were lured by the clean air, winding roads, free-standing homes, and manicured lawns of suburban communities, typified by Levittown, built on the wide potato flats of Long Island. Automobile sales skyrocketed and families drove in newfangled cars over freshly paved six-lane interstate roads, pit-stopping at newly constructed drive-ins and burger joints. Television, that new miracle device, entertained and informed a swelling middle class, unshackled from the poverty of the Great Depression. The future had arrived. The jet age brought people to exotic lands and beaches in hours, communication advances made it possible to telephone Europe from their homes instead of wiring telegrams, and men were being launched into space—and they came back alive![That is a lie about the racist Eisenhower saving America from totalitarianism, the author must of forgot what he was writing about,and supposedly the reason for Plum Island...The threat of the Soviet Union! DC]

Throughout the medical world, scientists were taming germ infections with revolutionary chemicals called antibiotics, developed during the war by pioneers like chemist George W. Merck. Vaccinations were becoming available, miracle injections that prevented those infections from even starting. While rocket scientists were trying to put a man on the moon, biologists and virologists were fervently exploring the eradication of disease. Polio virus, not long ago a terribly crippling disease, was being eradicated from the United States by Dr. Jonas Salk’s new vaccine, and the spread of deadly tuberculosis was being controlled for the first time in history. 

Unbridled economic expansion brought on a voracious American appetite: consumption of beef sharply surpassed that of pork, and the demand for all foods grew exponentially. And like the NASA scientists, the USDA also promised the people the moon—a moon not only of cheese, but of milk, vegetables, grains, and meats. The total integration of scientific knowledge would be forcefully applied to agriculture, resulting in tremendously increased productivity of crops and animal products. 

Healthy animals were needed to produce wholesome food, to support America’s high standard of living. The elimination of animal diseases not only meant a greater abundance of food, it prevented those diseases from jumping to man. Like Salk’s success with polio, a massive outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease virus in Mexico in 1948 was triumphantly overcome, contained just miles from the U.S. border before harming America’s food supply. Veteran USDA scientist Doc Shahan, assisted by Army Colonel Mace, led a ten-thousand-man campaign through the arid Mexican terrain to combat the outbreak there. 

Tall, lean, and tan, Doc Shahan had thick furrowed eyebrows and a black crew cut streaked with gray. Wherever he went, he carried with him a carved wood pipe and a pocketful of fresh tobacco. His talents, according to his friends, lay in his charm. Doc’s demeanor was more gentleman country doctor than egg-headed scientist, and his suave charisma proved perfect for the task. Like the Allied generals who had slain totalitarianism in Europe three years earlier, Shahan and his men of modern science vanquished the disease and saved North America. They corralled the infected animals of Mexican peasants, quarantined the beasts of burden, and then either vaccinated or destroyed them en masse. Within eighteen months they wiped the scourge clear off the continent, sparing America from outbreak and famine. But victory did not come without human cost—twenty-four Americans and hundreds of Mexicans died in the cause, in armed uprisings and brutal reprisals by Mexican villagers against the men of science.1 Proud of their victory, Doc Shahan and Colonel Mace returned to the States, yearning for a lab where they could continue to wage war against other virulent germs. 
1 The Mexican people regarded the Americans as intruding “conquistadores.” They called them los matavacas, the cow killers. Possibly the saddest story of the campaign is the gruesome murder of twenty-two-year old Arizonan Robert Proctor, a technician on a six-man vaccination squad. Robert was seized by a mob of 500 people in the village of San Pedro (total population: 200). The vicious mob stabbed him mercilessly, long after he died, and gouged out his eyeballs. The thugs then buried Robert under the plaza green, and later exhumed him and reburied him atop a hill overlooking San Pedro. Fourteen villagers were later apprehended and jailed. 
Advanced science applied to food production would aid America’s worldwide struggle of democracy over godless communism. “History has indelibly written that revolution, anarchy, and tyranny are fellow travelers of hunger and malnutrition,” one USDA scientist said. “Our plans for the future must include an ever-abundant supply of these foods if we want our people to be strong and our nation to endure.” Science would make the difference in the battle between Good and Evil. 

The crown jewel of this blossoming, futuristic agricultural empire would be Plum Island. 

We meet today on the site of an old fortress. This island today is again an outpost of defense, against an enemy more menacing by far than the fleets of 1898. 

The enemy is real and the victory we seek is a victory for every human being in every farm, village, town, and city of the Earth. Our grandparents built this country with the help of their animals. That was yesterday. Today, our farm economy pivots on animal agriculture. 

I firmly believe America is on the threshold of the most challenging and most prosperous decade the world has ever seen. This is the age of science and technology. The frontiers of the mind have replaced the frontiers of geography. Organized and imaginative research... will push the scientific frontier beyond limits we scarcely dare dream today. 

Brains will continue to replace brawn in American agriculture and industry! Man will direct power rather than supply it! Brainpower will be more important than horsepower! 

It was dedication day, and Ezra Taft Benson had the crowd on its feet. For years, Plum Island had been off limits to the curious public, under the heavily armed guard of Army soldiers and uniformed federal officers. The mysterious nature of the island lair, once a popular summer paradise, began when the U.S. War Department closed its shores and chained its piers at the end of the nineteenth century. “Tourists that float through Long Island Sound each summer,” wrote the Suffolk Sun in 1895, “in whose fancy there seem to be enchanted islands in ideal regions, ask a thousand questions. What are they? Who dwells thereon? They gaze at it wistfully as if they would like to know more about it.” Now, half a century later, feelings about Plum Island were no different. But today, on this sunny autumn morning, the gates were finally being flung open. 

Visitors came from near and far to walk the plank onto the 11:00 a.m. ferry to Plum Island on September 26, 1956. The laboratories had been washed down and polished up, the weeds pulled, the signs freshly painted. The employee union readied its outdoor table with cakes, cookies, and coffee. The island smelled of freshly cut grass mingled with sea salt. The germs had been locked away in vials in the vault drawers for three weeks now. 

Days before, Green porters had noticed an uncommon buzz along Main Street—strangers darting in and out of shops, eating and drinking heartily at Claudio’s and the clam bar out on the pier. Some had distinctive southern and western accents. Others spoke in foreign tongues. But all wore expressions of great anticipation. Locals opened their spare rooms, recently vacated at summer’s end, to welcome them. A special ferry was arranged with the New London Freight Lines; the massive LSM transport craft that landed amphibious battalions on the shores of Okinawa during World War II a decade earlier would now land on Plum Island an excited throng of general public and VIPs. Plum Island scientists wearing patriotic red, white, and blue badges pinned to their lapels escorted local residents around the island and inside the heralded chalk-white laboratory. Members of local civic organizations came, too, from the Rotary Club, the Minnepaug Club, and the Southold Tuesday Morning Club, as did national agricultural associations and high school science teachers with their classes in tow. 

Master of ceremonies was new Plum Island Director Doc Shahan— smartly dressed in a sharp two-button black suit, crisp white shirt, diagonally striped thin tie, and a handkerchief ironed into a square that peeked out of his breast pocket. Sitting in front of him, in the roped-off seating areas up front, were the VIPs: Plum Island’s founding father, Dr. William A. Hagan; the island’s former commanding officer, Army Colonel Donald Mace; top military brass from Fort Detrick, Maryland; and finally a slew of European research scientists. Among them was the director of West Germany’s new State Research Laboratory at Tübingen, Erich Traub. 

After the Pledge of Allegiance and a robust singing of the national anthem, Dr. Hagan rose to give his remarks. To most of the audience, he was known as the distinguished dean of Cornell University’s veterinary school. But to a select few, he was an architect of America’s biological warfare program, and the patriarch of anthrax as a weapon of war. Hagan spoke to the crowd about the lab’s importance, and listeners nodded and smiled approvingly. But then he upbraided the local audience, who had initially opposed the lab and were only now beginning to accept it. Reopening old wounds, Hagan said, “Those of you who fear that germs will leak and harm your families are good but misled folk.” Hagan exited the podium to tepid applause. 

At first, “the neighborhood wasn’t in our favor,” says Diana Fish, then the tender twenty-year-old wife of scientist Dr. Ralph Fish. “They didn’t want to accept us—we were ignored completely.” Scientists and their families got together each week to socialize and play canasta and gin rummy. Sometimes villagers would cross the street or turn and walk in another direction when they saw Colonel Mace or Doc Shahan approaching Main Street. “We were about as welcome as a moth in the garment district,” Shahan later remembered. “These men had wonderful, wonderful minds,” says Diana Fish. “They carried the banner of the United States through Mexico and were rewarded with Plum Island—and the public there was not hardly ready for it.” 

Dedication day, however, seemed to mark a turning point in relations. One Mrs. Hallock, from one of the area’s oldest and most respected families, wrote Doc Shahan that the ceremonies and public tours were 

so right—so helpful in allaying and banishing latent fears at first held by the community (I being one of those fearful!). . . . The fact that you want to think of us as friends and neighbors means a great deal. . . . We have pride in your work within—not outside of—our community. 

Doc Shahan thanked the VIP scientists for attending, careful not to name Colonel Mace and the Fort Detrick scientists. “We cannot say too much for the excellent cooperation the USDA has been given by the representatives of the Department of Defense,” Doc penned in his first draft, praising Mace’s vision for Plum Island; but such kudos remained on the cutting room floor, and the Army germ warfare men sitting in the audience understood (and accepted) the snub. After all, their involvement had to remain top secret. 

Dr. B. T. Simms spoke next, ordering Plum Island headlong into a brave new world. “We know we are facing days and weeks and years of hard work, but it will be work that we love,” he exulted. “We can expect many disappointments, but we can expect them to be overshadowed by achievements.” 

President Eisenhower’s secretary of agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson, then delivered his captivating keynote address. The former Idaho potato farmer had visited Long Island earlier that year and spoke to local farmers at Riverhead, the farming village at the head of the North and South forks, listening first to their concerns on crop supports and then their worries over Plum Island. The dapper, bespectacled Benson mounted the podium, crowned with the Department of Agriculture seal and framed by a long dais adorned in red, white, and blue bunting. With a cool breeze sweeping through the outdoor ceremony, the Mormon farmer roused the thousand strong audience with impassioned, almost religious oratory. 

Doc Shahan, sitting to the right of the podium in the first seat, beamed at the secretary and out at the crowd, applauded Benson’s powerful speech as the band played a majestic fanfare. The amiable director was overjoyed that his island laboratory had arrived. 

After the ceremony, Doc and his deputy, Dr. Jerry Callis, led Secretary and Mrs. Benson on a private tour down the lab corridors, pointing out laboratory rooms and animal rooms along the way. Benson gazed curiously down a chute in an animal room that led to the incinerator. Observing the tangle of decontamination machinery and pipes down the hallway that filtered the air, he exclaimed out loud, to no one in particular, “Germs just don’t have a chance!” On that intoxicating day, in the hands of such capable men, it certainly seemed that way. Outside, the doctors led the secretary to the lab’s cornerstone, which he dedicated retroactively. It read simply, “A.D. 1956.” 

The breeze had picked up, pushed by the fast-approaching Hurricane Flossy. Benson bid them farewell, tipped his white derby to the crowd, and caught the ferry back to the mainland. The other guests were also quickly shuttled off the island, and Doc Shahan moved the inaugural scientific conference to Greenport High School. Flossy wasn’t the first—and wouldn’t be the last—storm to batter Plum Island, which lay squarely in the path of the East Coast hurricane corridor. 
Doc Shahan’s Plum Island team consisted of a core of three scientists. Doc’s most promising star, thirty-four-year-old biochemist Dr. Howard L. Bachrach, had been the first to isolate the polio virus, working under the Nobel laureate Dr. Wendell M. Stanley. Obtaining Bachrach for Plum Island was so imperative, Shahan wooed him east with unheard-of perquisites: the opportunity to bring in his own biochemistry-biophysics team, and the chance to design his own research wing in the new island facility. The fifty-two-year-old Nebraskan Shahan, a cowboy boot–wearing lab director, was a hard man to turn down; a reporter described him as “tweedy in dress, handsome in a wide-open Western way.... Doc Shahan likes people and people like him.” Bachrach bit, but realized soon afterward that he got a little less than he had bargained for. “This space is, of course, much less than I have recommended as a minimum,” he later lamented. “And it would help if [more] space becomes available in the basement.” It never did. Shahan also drafted chief scientist Dr. Jacob Traum, who retired at the age of seventy-four from the University of California (also Bachrach’s alma mater). Traum lent his reputation and immense knowledge to the fledgling facility as a world-renowned expert on tuberculosis and brucellosis. But the franchise player on Doc’s team was the slim, blond assistant director. At the tender age of twenty-seven, Dr. Jerry Callis was the youngest member of the Plum Island scientific staff. Callis graduated with honors from Purdue University and landed a USDA position studying animal germs overseas, where he was being groomed for the opening of the new laboratory. 

In a remarkable departure from the not too distant past, local newspapers provided glowing support. The Riverhead News-Review, for example, commented: “Worthwhile research projects such as the Animal Disease Laboratory are in the best public interest and examples of useful expenditures of the taxpayers’ money.” Four years after the locals strenuously opposed the building of the laboratory, folks were now in genuine support. It didn’t hurt that almost overnight, Plum Island became the largest employer in the region, with over three hundred workers making the ferry trip across Plum Gut each morning, all of them now receiving healthy federal government salaries and benefits. When the villagers’ spouses, siblings, and children were hired by Plum Island, things quickly changed. “I think people are beginning to appreciate that we know how to maintain the security over any infection leaving the island,” said Shahan, “and that a new industry has come to town and new money is being spent around here.” 

This was all a relief to Doc Shahan and Jerry Callis, who had fought hard to build the island laboratory. With the support of their mentor, Dr. Hagan, the scientists’ vision was at first grandiose, perhaps too much so in Congress’s eyes, as lawmakers in Washington parsed through the aggies’ $30 million initial plan to build a thirty-acre behemoth. “These people came up before the committee,” said the Appropriations Committee chairman, Jamie Whitten, “with the most fantastic plans for spending money and building a laboratory that you can imagine. It was entirely out of line . . . it looked like the Department of Agriculture might... want a Pentagon building for itself.” They ended up with a more modest, $10 million complex instead. 

Laboratory 101 was a pioneer effort in high-hazard biological agent containment. On that day in 1956, it appeared as a gleaming white monument. Lying on the northwest plateau of Plum Island, the lab is splayed over a ten-acre site just east of the old lighthouse. A steep cliff, towering high above huge boulders, forms a natural buttress against the churning waters at the confluence of the Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. This 164,000-square-foot T-shaped structure, with all its intricate machinery—a cluster of twisting pipes and valves and boxes and gauges taking up the entire second floor—cost $7,712,000 to build. The USDA used the remainder of the $10 million in congressional funding for the supporting cast: the guardhouse entry gate, sewage decontamination building, emergency power plant, storage buildings, fencing to corral the herds of test animals outside, and the compound fences to envelop the lab building. The two ten-foot high barbed-wire, chain-link fences have a twenty-foot buffer zone between them; the inner fence has a concrete barrier that extends five feet above ground and four feet below. Before 101 opened, the perimeter was scorched with chemicals to defoliate the area and deter vermin from approaching. 

Just west of 101, outside the compound fence, is Building No. 102, the wastewater treatment plant. Here, sewage is heat-treated to decontaminate it before it is piped into the Long Island Sound and Gardiner’s Bay. Next door is Building No. 103, the emergency power plant and adjacent oil tank farm. The air that comes in and goes out, the water coming in, the sewage going out—all of it is controlled inside a master control room with large, glowing red and green buttons and throw switches mounted on the walls, and large panel grids each containing thirty-five small boxes that illuminate white with buzzer alarms. 

The top of 101’s T is the clean zone—the main hallway and service area, offices, the sterilizing laundry, complete with sewing and mending equipment. The wide stem of the T is the hot zone, divided lengthwise into three segments. The two outer strips house thirty-two animal isolation rooms. Each room measures ten feet by fifteen feet, and a door, painted bright red, leads through change-room air locks into “hot corridors,” dimly lit by squat windows made of opaque glass bricks that refract light and cast shadows within. Together, the animal isolation rooms hold up to seventy-five head of cattle. 

The middle of the stem of the T, separated from the animal wings by an outdoor moat, holds a maze of laboratory rooms, divided into four research areas. Inside is all the heavy equipment—the electron microscope, ultraviolet irradiator, ultracentrifuge, egg incubators, virus fermenters, virus freezers, wall-to-wall glove boxes. The rooms are windowless, illuminated by fluorescent lights that cast a ghastly pallor over the glazed tile walls, cabinets, and metal benches upon which tissue cultures are grown, eggs embryonated, germs pipetted (sucked by mouth into a long glass tube), cells infected, antibodies produced, and so on. The big incubators don’t hatch any chicks; they grow viruses in trays of eggs and provide embryo tissues for in vitro experiments. Inside the virus freezers are germs and a stockpile of animal and human tissues grown in the incubators alongside the chicken eggs. The ultracentrifuge spins to create a great force (thousands of times the Earth’s gravitational force), which separates viruses from their infected host cell and other debris.

At the base of the T is the incinerator charging room, where animal carcasses, organs, fluids, paper items, and other combustibles—even spent nuclear radiation—are reduced to fine ash at earth-scorching temperatures. The smoke emitting from the pile within is flushed out through a filtered stack lined with afterburner jets. 

During the dedication day tours, every inch of this state-of-the-art facility was sparkling clean, but this didn’t last long. After the audience left and the stage and podium were broken down, the curtain fell on Plum Island. Days later, splattered blood, animal waste, and remnants of internal organs were strewn across the freshly painted white walls and shiny floors of the animal rooms, transforming them into something more akin to torture chambers than science labs. Behind one room’s air-locked door, unsuspecting cows were restrained by a brawny animal handler wearing powder blue scrubs, then injected with a menu of germs that rendered the beasts incapacitated in a matter of hours. Inside another, goats were locked in stanchions, a hairsbreadth from choking between two narrow metal bars snapped tightly into place around their necks; another room held swarms of infected soft and hard ticks gorging on the blood of two pigs; and in still another, horses were bled for serum samples. 

The fauna came to Plum Island in a precise and peculiar manner. Test animals were periodically trucked in from a Virginia farm to Brookhaven National Laboratory, the federal atomic energy research facility on Long Island. A special Plum Island truck picked them up and carted them to Orient Point, where the cattle car boarded the ferry for the bumpy ride across Plum Gut. Upon arrival at Plum Island harbor, workers led the animals off the truck and through the gated animal transfer station. The animals were slipped into a “squeeze-gate,” punch-tagged on the ear, and sprayed. They were led up ramps onto another truck, a permanent fixture on the island, which brought the animals to the old Army artillery bunkers where they were washed in a big vat (called a dipping), then quarantined for two weeks. Feed came in through an air lock, and a hammermill that ground up any live insects or rodents that managed to burrow inside the burlap feed sacks. No person, vehicle, or animal could cross through the harbor gatehouse without a thorough decontamination. 

After an animal finished its quarantine, it was a one-way trip into the lab. There, two animal handlers readied to enter the animal’s room. Adhering to strict safety procedures, they donned protective gear—two-piece black rubber slickers, boots, rubber hats, and neon orange gloves—looking something like offshore fishermen preparing to be battered by a heavy gale. When they entered the room, one went to work tying the jaw of the cow to a cleat in the wall, while the other held it steady, petting the creature’s coat. Then came the injection of anesthesia. Seconds later, the men jumped out of the way as the eight-hundred-pound cow suddenly keeled over on its side. Crouched over the supine cow, one handler yanked the animal’s limp tongue out of its mouth, while the other stuck a long needle into the underside, and slowly injected the liquid virus slurry du jour. Their mission accomplished, the men exited, and took turns decontaminating, stepping into a boot bath of caustic soda lye and water and washing down each other’s rubber uniform with a wire brush. 
Humans had their own precise methods of arrival. Entering into Lab 101 each morning, they walked down a flight of stairs and through a one-way turnstile into a change room, where they showered and changed into blue and white coveralls and white Keds. The air inside, under negative pressure, felt clammy and dry; in the most pressurized areas, it felt like being inside an airplane cabin. “We sucked on hard candy and cough drops to keep our throats moist,” remembers one worker. For the burly animal handlers who moved about the lab, it was not unusual to take eight or ten showers, each supervised by guards, in a single day. “We were awfully clean when we got home at night,” an employee recalls. Showers were frequent; the Plum Island records for most showers taken per shift stand at seventeen for animal handlers and twenty-three for scientists. To avoid a constant changing of clothes, workers often went about their business wearing only rubber boots, which made for quite a sight. 

The only way to exit the laboratory was through the anteroom, where workers scraped under their fingernails (a perfect hiding spot for viruses), coughed, spit, and blew their noses into paper towels, and walked through a one-way metal gate that automatically triggered the spray chute of rinsing showers. Five showerheads deluged seven and a half searing gallons of water per second upon the occupant, as he washed thoroughly with hexachlorophene-infused soap. And no cutting corners, either. “Skip any part of a bath and get caught doing it,” says a worker, “and you’re out of a job so quick it’s a pity.” If a worker exited an especially “hot area,” he has to take two showers with two changes of clothes in between; otherwise it was just one, but that shower had to last at least three minutes. 

Even eating had rules. No going down the block for a bite to eat. Cold box lunches went into the lab through the air lock. Lab glassware, tools, and other objects went through walk-in-sized autoclaves, giant steam pressure cookers with two hot and clean doors that screwed shut and sterilized items going in, and decontaminate them going out. 

Workers were required to follow other rules even after leaving the island. A sign posted at the ferry dock eliminated any misunderstandings between the director and the three hundred plus workers in his keep: 



Security was taken extremely seriously in the beginning. From the moment the Army transferred Plum Island to the USDA, the aggies disclaimed an active role in military affairs. But they set up a first-rate operation with the type of security and secrecy worthy of a military installation. Plum Island’s “armored division” consisted of twenty-six trucks, four buses, two carryalls, and three jeeps, which cruised the island’s perimeter on twenty-four-hour armed patrol. As employees disembarked from the ferry each morning, three uniformed guards, in dark brown shirtsleeves and black caps, examined each worker’s security pass at the harbor gatehouse and checked off his identification number on a clipboard. A red pass meant the employee worked in a “hot zone”; it allowed him on the “red” bus and then gave him clearance into the laboratory building, confined strictly to the reds. A yellow pass allowed him inside the labs’ outdoor compound, but not inside the labs. A brown pass permitted island access, but not near the labs. More guards patrolled the fences around the lab and admitted people into the compound at the lab gatehouse. 

Obedience of biological safety and security rules was drilled into the heads of employees over a mandatory two-day orientation program. Entering a restricted area without a pass, entering an animal holding area without permission, or leaving Lab 101 or 257 without showering out were all egregious violations—even minor infractions were verboten. The degree of punishment was tied to the severity of the infraction and meted out as follows: reprimand for the first offense, ten days suspension without pay for second offense, discharge on the third offense. One worker remembers the second day of his orientation course: “After lunch, we were escorted by Pete DiBlasio [Plum Island’s first chief of security], and he was held up at the door holding it for someone carrying out something, and he called out to us, ‘Stop!’ But we kept walking a few steps because we were in direct rays of sunlight. I took a shortcut off the path and walked on the grass, and Pete ran over to me. He said, ‘Listen, I understand that this is your second day on the job. But if I ever see you walk on that grass again, I’ll write you up—and after one more write-up, you’re gone.’ ” 

In the 1950s, dealing in lethal germs required loyalty oaths (“I hereby pledge full allegiance to the United States Government . . .”) and State Department and FBI national security checks. Clearances at Plum Island were termed “Sensitive,” meaning that most personnel had to be screened by the feds in a review that took up to three months. Sensitive positions included security (armed guards and full-time firefighters); employee residents of the island; those with access to red areas; animal caretakers; and those with access to classified research material. The case of Isaac Gaston reflects the seriousness with which the rules were then regarded. Gaston was a truck driver who drove from building to building, carting items and people all over the island. He had been a truck driver on Plum Island since day one, but now fell under the new security rules because he made stops inside the laboratory compounds. Until the driver received his Sensitive clearance, Doc Shahan ordered his duties immediately curtailed to supply runs between nonessential buildings, far away from the restricted areas. 

The rules for visitors were simple. There were no visitors. Once the germs were uncorked, no visitors, no matter how important, were admitted on Plum Island. “Nobody,” said Doc Shahan to a nosy reporter, tamping fresh tobacco into his pipe for emphasis. “Nobody goes just to see.” He even denied access to Dr. Herald Cox from Lederle Laboratories, a dedication day VIP who had discovered the germ warfare agent Q Fever. Cox merely wanted to observe safety procedures for a lab that Lederle was building in Uruguay. Though Cox’s friend Dr. Hagan called repeatedly and lobbied to allow the visit, Doc Shahan put his foot down—no visitors allowed while the lab is in operation. 

The beaches and the harbor were also off-limits. Doc Shahan moved against lobstermen and fishermen setting their traps and nets in Plum Island area waters. Often fishermen, pleasure boaters, and thrill-seeking snoops had to be waved away by guards brandishing shotguns, shouting through booming bullhorns from the silky beach or from high atop the island’s rocky coves. Any picnicking boaters who set foot on the island had to sign release affidavits (“I consent to any quarantine and detention imposed...I will avoid contact with...I consent in the event of emergency to be detained . . . my clothes and personal items may be held for decontamination. . . .”) or they were promptly arrested, and their foodstuffs confiscated. 

Once, a boater’s puppy dove from the craft to chase after a piece of driftwood and swam to shore. Because the dog had set its paws on the island and might communicate disease, it was forcibly confiscated by the guards, put to sleep, and incinerated. Rules were rules, and this one was clear: “None of the animals that land on Plum Island are ever permitted to leave.” 

The “Nothing Leaves” policy wasn’t limited to animals. To prevent contamination, only humans, their street clothes, and their jewelry could leave Plum Island. Animal remains, spent vehicles, laboratory equipment, construction debris, paints, disinfectants, chemicals, biologicals, tires, radiation, and even food were either burned or buried in multiple landfills on the island. If it fit in the incinerator, it went to the charging room; if not, into a landfill pit. Not even books from the island’s medical-veterinary library could be borrowed overnight. New York Telephone placed a dedicated truck on the island, and Ma Bell’s repairman, Mr. Albert A. Abersmith, kept four separate sets of tools, one for each laboratory module, and took four showers a day. On the rare occurrence a vehicle absolutely had to come to Plum Island from the mainland, its top and undercarriage were sprayed down with disinfectant, and the interior was wiped down. Then it had to drive through decontamination wheel baths and sit on the dock for two weeks minimum before it could return to the mainland with a clean bill of health. And even then, the safety office called and checked up on the vehicle after the first and second weeks on the mainland. 

Some chafed at the innumerable safety rules and regulations; one called them “ludicrously careful.” Doc Shahan would have none of it—if you didn’t like it, then leave. “We take no risks,” he told a reporter. “We may be extreme, but I don’t think so. It’s better to be overcautious all the time than not cautious enough just once.” 

Speaking of the laboratory’s intricate constructs, a Plum Island scientist said, “All of this planning and construction results from fear—fear which is not to be confused with cowardice—but rather the real realization of lurking dangers around us.” The laboratory attempted to tame those fears. “It’s the most complicated in the world,” said West Point Army engineer Louis Genuario, describing Lab 101’s revolutionary sheet-metal air-control system he helped design. “And the largest.”3 
3 One reporter along for the dedication day ride had this to say about Genuario’s creation: “I, for one, found the 5,000-square-foot room on the second floor where the ducts, filter chambers, electrical conduits and controls come together an excellent place for inducing nightmares.” 
Jabbing his smoldering pipe at a reporter, Doc Shahan boasted, “No other laboratory in the world can match ours for all-out security.” Not Europe, certainly not Africa, and not even Fort Detrick, the Army’s biological warfare headquarters. Shahan could make that statement with cool confidence: Plum Island was the latest and the greatest, an amalgamation of the best biological security techniques and state-of-the-art technology human knowledge could offer. 

So when the USDA opened the Plum Island Animal Disease Center amid so much pomp and fanfare, it really was “The World’s Safest Lab,” as the USDA trumpeted in its opening-day press release. 

Indeed, germs didn’t have a chance. 
Early operations at Plum Island boomed during the prosperous 1950s. There were the early breakthroughs with brucellosis. There was the innovative propagation of foot-and-mouth disease virus in kidney cell cultures by Drs. Callis and Bachrach. But before any research could be done, Plum Island had to first get hold of the germs. 

Doc Shahan referred to his viruses as his “prized possessions,” and stored them on dry ice under lock and key. During a six-month period in 1953, Shahan and his Mexican campaign colleague, Colonel Mace, then the Army’s biowarfare commander on Plum Island, secreted 131 strains of 13 different germs on the island, akin to Captain Kidd stowing his own pirate booty on adjacent Gardiner’s Island some 300 years earlier. Shahan’s and Mace’s clandestine treasure trove was equally worthy of a white skull and crossbones emblazoned on a black flag. 

Listed on the now-declassified “Inventory of Animal Viruses and Antisera Procured by the Cooperation Between the Chemical Corps and the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Stored at Plum Island” are the starter strains of the germs still housed on Plum Island: bluetongue, Rift Valley fever, African swine fever, fowl plague, sheep pox, Newcastle disease, goat pulmonitis, Mycobacterium butyricum, Teschens’ disease, vesicular stomatitis, virus diarrhea of cattle, rinderpest, foot-and-mouth disease, and twelve ampoules (hermetically sealed, bulbous glass vessels) of a germ listed as “N.” 

How they got their hands on the viruses reads like a Ian Fleming novel. “It was sort of cloak-and-dagger business,” recalled scientist Dr. George Cottral, Plum Island’s first biological security officer. Shahan picked up the hot, live rinderpest from the Army’s top-secret PROJECT 1,001 (named after the famous Arabian Nights tales) deep within the Kenyan jungle. He brought it with him to Great Britain’s Pirbright virus laboratory near London, where he met up with Colonel Mace and Dr. Cottral. There the trio bought bovine and guinea pig tissues infected with six types of sixteen different strains of foot-and-mouth disease virus, forking over to the lab’s director a U.S. Treasury check for $5,000. Federal law forbade the virus on mainland United States soil. So after overseeing its intricate packaging, Mace, Shahan, and Cottral rode back with the test tubes and ampoules across the Atlantic on a U.S. Navy freighter. They were placed carefully inside a heavy canvas bag, padlocked inside a strong wooden box, placed in a stainless steel box. The men kept it within their sight the whole trip. In the deep waters of Gardiner’s Bay, just south of Plum Island, the freighter’s screws came full stop and set anchor. Unloaded onto a tugboat (which looked like a dinghy next to the massive freighter) along with its three chaperones was a shiny hinged metal box—glistening in the bright sunlight, stenciled PROPERTY OF THE U.S. GOVERNMENT on all sides. The tugboat slowly chugged to Plum Island harbor, where it put its precious cargo ashore. 

Soon after, other viruses, similarly sealed, made the journey to Plum Island, hailing from the far corners of the globe—North and South Rhodesia, Nanking, Tokyo, India, Thailand, Palestine, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt, Kenya Colony, Nakuru, Kabete, South Africa, Orange Free State, Entebbe, Nigeria, Sierra Leone; from nearer reaches—West Germany, Italy, France, Great Britain, Mexico; and even from within the nation’s borders— Fort Detrick and Cornell University (courtesy of Dr. Hagan). Each bug was frozen inside corked vials or ampoules, tucked in hinged metal canisters, and carefully packed in boxes bound with padlocked iron straps. The boxes were then locked in a dry ice cabinet, which itself was inside a bombproof vault. “I have trouble getting into the stuff myself,” said Cottral, who held all dominion over the germs, speaking with the New York Herald Tribune in 1954. 

That was biological security. 
All research scientists share a thirst, a quest that is difficult to put into words. According to one, “The person first becomes knowledgeable in the subject, then greatly steeped in it, and finally comes to possess that which is the feel of the problem. So totally immersed . . . he is often in a position to render the greatest of possible scientific service, namely, the elucidation of facts previously unknown.” Doc Shahan inspired his young scientists to reach for this almost spiritual place. 

A year after the dedication, young Dr. Bachrach and Dr. Sidney Breese, a wizard in microscopy, announced a first: they had successfully photographed a virus using an electron microscope. Though the technology had been introduced in 1945, results were disappointing and photographic detail was difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. But recently, metallic shadowing helped add dimension and clarity to specimens, and Bachrach and Breese, after an untold number of miscues, snapped a crisp image on a plate glass negative. For the first time in the 443 years since it was first diagnosed and described by the Italian monk Hieronymus Fracastorius, one of the smallest creatures known to mankind, the foot-and-mouth disease virus, could be seen in striking detail. The micrographs revealed something never before witnessed: a spherically shaped gray ball, one-millionth of an inch in diameter and even smaller than the tiny polio virus. Other work proved that viruses were not all spherical in shape—they also came in tadpoles, rods, and cubes. Scientists could now advance with research and development at great speed. 

The crown jewel was already paying dividends. 

After spending a decade building Plum Island into a preeminent center of research, Doc Shahan retired in 1963. The young man who the USDA had groomed for the position from the very day he graduated from Purdue ascended to the directorship. Jerry Jackson Callis would remain at that post for the next quarter-century. 

Dr. Callis told the islanders he had no intentions of toying with Doc’s legacy, but instead would build upon it. His goals, he said, were threefold: develop the most successful research; maintain a high level of employee morale; and aspire to be the most respected laboratory, not only in the nation, but in the world. More than ambitious, the goals were heartfelt. His tenacious, almost childlike devotion to the island and its mission was never in doubt. As he encouraged communication between employees and management and promoted the freedom to speak one’s mind, the new director promised firmness coupled with fairness. The most important resource on Plum Island is the employee, he said. He pledged to “respect the personal dignity... recognize length of service and work achievement . . . maintain continuous employment and realistic salaries... and provide work security” for all. Callis’s final admonition invoked the age-old rule preached in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke—“Believe in the Golden Rule and always practice it.” 

Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. 
Because the “Nothing Leaves” policy discouraged most outside maintenance and support, Plum Island grew into a self-contained enterprise. For example, the island had its own machine and metalwork shop from which Callis and the scientists ordered “everything from roads to rabbit restraints,” says veteran Plum Island draftsman Ben Robbins. That line became the motto of the engineering department. From completing inhouse alterations and repairs to adjusting the elaborate laboratory containment system, detailed over hundreds of blueprints, no task was too difficult for the Plum Island workforce. By the time Callis assumed the reins, the engineering department—along with two laboratory buildings, an armed guard platoon, waterworks, animal corrals, electric power plant, fire department, sewage treatment plant, cafeteria, laundry, library, and two marine ferryboats—had transformed the island into a realm. 

Now Jerry Callis alone presided over a virtual kingdom, a fantastically beautiful, primeval island replete with miles of white beaches and green groves, bluffs and swamps and fields, in the cradle of the most coveted real estate in America. All of this at his command, protected by twenty-four hour armed guards and 350 people manning the island each day. What’s more, no worker could pull seniority over the new director—Callis predated every single member of the staff. He helped design the buildings, and he authored the innumerable safety and security rules—placing him on a perch beyond reproach. The USDA once referred to the island as “a small town unto itself.” Others who knew better called it “Jerry’s Plantation.” “They referred to it as ‘Master’s Island,’ ” remembers former Plum Island scientist Dr. Carol House, “because he ruled it with an iron fist—like with slaves and all.” 

In the eighteenth century, the locals sportively called the reclusive Samuel Beebe, who owned Plum Island back then, “Lord of the Isles” and “King Beebe.” Now Callis had risen to Beebe’s level of esteem—and never was this more apparent as when his next-door neighbor paid a visit and welcomed him into the clique. Remembers Callis: “Robert David Lion [Gardiner, whose family has owned Gardiner’s Island since 1638, and who refers to himself as the Sixteenth Lord of the Manor] telephoned me and said, ‘We’re both lords of adjacent islands—we must meet.’ ” The eccentric codger ordered his crew to sail his yacht, adorned with a colorful flag bearing the Gardiner family coat-of-arms, due south from his manor house to Plum Island harbor. Feasting on a light salad in the Plum Island cafeteria, the two “Lords” hit it off immediately. Like a boy showing off his toys, Callis toured his new friend around the island grounds. Old Gardiner nodded and smiled and spun tales about the two island lairs from generations long ago, in an aristocratic voice not quite the Queen’s English, but decidedly not American. “Lord” Gardiner then departed, thanking his companion for lunch and extending an invitation for Callis to visit his manor house. With “Lord” Callis’s permission, Gardiner later sent over his niece, Alexandra Goelet, who was studying osprey while attending Yale University. In a rare dispensation, Dr. Callis allowed her and her classmates ashore to do some “birding” on Plum Island.4 They made a special visit to the only marked grave that exists today on Plum Island, a deep pit where a Revolutionary War colonel, one Thomas “Gardner,” was buried in 1786. 
4 Years later, Uncle Gardiner and Alexandra became bitterly estranged over future plans for their 365-yearold island estate. The rift between them grew so great that ninety-one-year-old Robert actually attempted to find an unrelated man named Gardiner to adopt as his sole heir, to wrest control of Gardiner’s Island from his niece. He was unsuccessful.
To his subjects, Callis was larger than life. He was greatly respected and, like many a monarch, seldom seen—spotted only occasionally in his blue seersucker suit hustling into the Lab 101 conference room. To others, Plum Island was his very own Emerald City. Callis was the wizard who, wearing a sorcerer’s cap, threw the switches behind heavy curtains that shrouded the redbrick administration building perched atop the old Army parade ground, regally surveying his windswept island lair. Adding to the intrigue around the time of his coronation, Callis married Loisanne Roon, a local millionairess active in the Southold Garden Club. The couple moved into a rambling, secluded estate in Southold, tucked deep in the woods, boasting captivating views of sailboats plying Peconic Bay and the Hamptons. 

Almost to a man, the workers saw him as the rare benevolent dictator who meant what he said, and practiced what he said. Stanley Mickaliger, a retired building engineer, concurs. Under Callis’s reign: 

You had dedicated people. This was not just a job, it was also our home, like one big close-knit family—and we’re still close after all these years and keep in touch. When I sailed on ships during the war, they always said, “It’s not the ship—it’s the crew that makes the ship.” It was like the world of a ship over on Plum, and when we worked there, regardless of what anyone tells you or says, Callis took care of his people. Callis looked out for them. 

Back then, “the place was just beautiful,” remembers one worker. “There were flower beds planted everywhere—the roads were swept clean and the grass was always freshly manicured. There were fourteen or fifteen guys dedicated just to what they called ‘Buildings and Grounds’ who kept this place such that it was like being on a big estate.” After all, it was the USDA’s crown jewel, and diplomats and scientists from foreign lands like Sweden, Spain, Mexico, and Australia would visit often (the visitor policy had loosened a bit). The jewel required constant polishing so it could sparkle for all to see. 

When Callis encouraged open communication, he meant it. Every year, he orchestrated a family picnic and awards ceremony where he grandly recognized the seemingly small contributions of workers that, together, built Plum Island into a research powerhouse. Scientists and secretaries alike were called onstage and cited for outstanding performance and dedication. Because he listened to the workforce and implemented their suggestions, new ideas came to his desk each week. Many were put into practice, and all were acknowledged with gratitude. One worker suggested installing fluorescent arrows on each dolphin marking the harbor entrance, and another thought of a temperature alarm in the Mouse House, the mice colony building. Still another proposed to install lighting and protective wire grills in front of the big oil burners in the dark basement passageways of the labs. An engineer solved the problem of ash accumulation in the incinerator room with a simple solution—install a blower that would blow the ash into the atmosphere with the smoke. He too got an award for this toxic remedy, and Plum Island burned biologically contaminated waste this way right up until the environmentally conscious 1970s. 

As chief of one of the foremost scientific laboratories, Dr. Callis also served as a scientific ambassador, representing the United States in many foreign lands and helping countries stem and eradicate germ outbreaks. Like Doc Shahan, he too pushed his Plum Island scientists hard to reach new heights. And they did. VACCINE MAY END ANIMAL SICKNESS, read the front page of the New York Times in 1967. Foot-and-mouth disease virus, believed to be the cattle plague, the fifth of the infamous ten biblical plagues (Exodus 9:1–7)—the scourge upon Egypt’s livestock—might be removed forever from the Earth. They were undoing the divine. Under Callis’s direction, Plum Island developed a trivalent vaccine, capable of immunizing against the three major strains of foot-and-mouth virus, A, O, and C. Through trial and error, they grew virus in monkey kidney cell cultures they had cultivated years before, then killed the live virus with acetyl ethylene imine and added two mineral oils as enhancers. Four years later, Plum Island reached another milestone, when scientists established the first rapid test, a radial diffusion test that quickly diagnosed virus infection and detected viral presence. 

“At the moment,” said a proud Director Callis, “we’re having very good success. . . .”



This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. As a journalist, I am making such material available in my efforts to advance understanding of artistic, cultural, historic, religious and political issues. I believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law.

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. Copyrighted material can be removed on the request of the owner.