The Immunity Community

Saranac Lake's Trudeau Institute has been at the forefront of the battle against disease for forty years.

THE SIGN ON ROUTE 3 LEADING INTO SARANAC LAKE is straightforward and inscrutable. “Trudeau Institute,” it says, “next left.” If you are a devotee of the funnies, or of National Public Radio, you might suppose it had something to do with “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau, or his sister, correspondent Michelle Trudeau. And it does, indirect­ly. But if you also happen to be a visitor of a certain age, you might remember Saranac Lake’s reputation in the early half of the cen­tury as “The City of the Sick,” the place where consumptives came to take the cure, and the sign will jog your memory. It will remind you that it was a doctor named Trudeau (the great grandfather of Garry and Michelle) who developed that cure and ran the first sanitorium in the United States, in Saranac Lake. So you might he confused, might think the Trudeau Institute is “the old san,” might imagine it abandoned and decrepit, and choose to keep driving on into town.

Taking that left, though, will bring you to a place that is hum­ming, a four-column brick building close to the shore of Lower Saranac Lake. This is Trudeau, a small scientific research institute with a sizable, international reputation.

To confuse the Trudeau Institute with the Trudeau Sanitorium is inevitable; it is both heir and inheritor of the sanitorium, and both were named for that pioneering doctor, Edward Livingston Trudeau, who came to the Adirondacks in 1873 dying of tuberculosis, and found the mountain air restorative. Trudeau was a scientist as well as a physician, and he reasoned that if the regimen he was following at Paul Smiths Hotel, which fea­tured exercise, fresh air and wholesome food, worked for him, it would work for oth­ers. When he was well enough he resumed his medical practice, moving his family up from New York City to Saranac Lake. Patients soon followed.

The first building of Dr. Trudeau’s Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium went up in 1884. It was a two-person clapboard house, painted red, that was affectionately called Little Red. Soon there were Little Blue and Little Green, and before long they were joined by other cottages, workshops, a chapel, community rooms, a post office. By 1894 the Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium had a hundred patients; sixty years later it had 230 patients, 114 staff members, a new name—the Trudeau Sanitorium—and its own mailing address, Trudeau, New York.

The sanitorium closed in 1954, a victim, like the tuberculosis bacillus itself, oft discovery of antibiotics. The property was sold to the American Management Association for a conference center. Little Red, whose likeness adorns the 1934 Christmas Seal, is the last remnant of the sanitorium. It flanks the Trudeau Institute,sitting empty on the grounds like the museum piece it is.

SEEN FROM THE AIR, the Trudeau Institute is an aberration—a campus of buildings tucked into a deep pocket of forest. Yet its location was not a mistake, not unintentional. “I believed that there was room in American biological research for an organization that provided an optimal contemplative environment for the pursuit of research, that stood alone, unencumbered by administrative duties or the politics of a university, with the freedom to do research whenever you wish,” says Francis Trudeau, grandson of E. L. Trudeau, and the institute’s founder. “I still do.”

In 1960, in the course of planning the institute, Trudeau and his colleagues applied to the U.S. Public Health Service for a construction grant. “The application was unique in several aspects, but most particularly in its rural aspects, postured against no adjoining university,” Dr. Trudeau noted in his report to the trustees of the Trudeau Foundation, of which he was president. The grant was approved.

“Frank Trudeau wanted this to be a contemplative place for scientists to work,” says Ken Sprague, the institute’s development director. “All the labs were built with a v of the mountains and the lake. The sunsets are spectacular. Frank knew what he was doing—they’re not only beautiful, they’re a good reason not to go home too early.”

As Sprague says this, he is standing by the broad window of the institute’s Founder’s Library that opens to a panorama of Lower Saranac and the mountains that rise up over it. Inside, the prospect is turn-of-the-century Great Camp: there are over-stuffed chairs, and paneling on the walls and a table topped with a topo map. Downstairs is the working library, its shelves adorned with the latest editions of Blood and The Journal of Eukaryotic Microbiology.

The abstruseness of these titles suggests why the institute has a low profile in its hometown. Where the sanitorium was a social as well as medical place, the institute is its more retiring, scholarly offspring. It is not aloof so much as preoccupied. “We have always done things to try to break down the town/gown distinction,” Dr. Trudeau says. “For a while we sponsored a Little League team, and our recreation committee made floats for the local parades.” The effort has not been completely successful. As Dr. Robert North, the institute’s director says, “Our reputation is with the national and international scientific community. Many people in the community where we live don’t know what we’re doing.” And, he adds, “The scientists are different from most of the people in Saranac Lake.

But Trudeau scientists are different from most other researchers too. For one thing, they do not worl laboratory that is affiliated with a major medical center, a university or private industry. For another, they are doing basic research, looking for answers at the molecular and cellular level. “Little that we do here has direct clinical applications,” says Dr. Pamela Dunn, a British scientist who has been at Trudeau “seven winters.”

Trudeau research is also unusual because it uses animal models of disease. In other settings animal research is prohibitively expensive, so scientists must settle for test-tube experimentation. In Saranac Lake, where both real estate and labor is cheaper than it is in urban areas, animal research is still manageable. The institute maintains a separate, state-of-the-animal facility that is able to screen for viruses and other diseases. Surplus animals are sold to other research institutions. “Our alumni are a hundred thousand dead mice each year,” Dr. Trudeau says.

The basic question all twenty Trudeau scientists are trying to answer in one way or another is this: How does the immune system work? That is, how does it fight infections and disease? This question is fundamental to biomedical research. It gets at how the body works, and how diseases work, and it begins to suggest ways that physicians and pharmacologists and other medical researchers can use the body itself to fight illness. At the moment, Trudeau scientists are working on projects related to the AIDS virus, looking at how the immune system in healthy people functions to fight those microorganisms like Pneumocystis carinii and Cryptococcus neoformascause pneumonia and brain lesions in people who are infected with HIV; they are engaged in cancer research, trying to deter­mine how to enable the body to reject estab­lished cancers by boosting the immune sys­tem; and they are studying the relationship between immunity and aging. Where other scientists have believed that advanced aging was caused by a decline in the immune sys­tem’s ability to fight infection, Trudeau sci­entists do not, and they are trying to prove it.

The institute also continues to conduct research in the field pioneered by Edward Livingston Trudeau in his laboratory on Saranac Lake’s Church Street: tuberculosis. But like the other diseases being studied at the insti­tute, this one too is being examined through Trudeau’s unique lens on the immune system. According to a recent institute publication, “The whole [TB] program is aimed at under­standing the type of immunity that must be evoked in experimental animals and humans by a vaccine in order to protect against sub­sequent infection with virulent tuberculosis bacteria.”

In Edward Livingston Trudeau’s laboratory a hundred years ago, the question being asked—and its answer—was much more immediate: Did you or did you not have tuberculosis? Trudeau, unlike most physicians of his era, was interested in the science of medicine. Only three years after Germany’s Robert Koch had discovered the tuber­cle bacillus that caused TB, Trudeau became the first American scientist to grow the bacillus in an artificial culture. That led him to further experiments, vaccination among them: Trudeau began injecting laboratory animals with live bacilli to see if they subsequently became resistant to the disease. They did.

From Trudeau’s fledgling attempts to study TB systematically and look for a cure scientifically came the sanitorium’s early commitment to research. After Trudeau’s death, in 1915, when the sanitorium was rechristened to reflect the name of its founder, the board of trustees also formally established a scientific mission, the Trudeau Foundation, for “the prosecution of researches into the causes, the nature and the treatment of tuberculosis and other diseases; the teaching of all that pertains to the said diseases; and the support of tuberculous physicians who were able to do some work while regaining their health.” The foundation sponsored a number of labs, including the Saranac Laboratory, which examined the occupational and industrial aspects of TB and included a field division outside the Adirondacks; the Trudeau Lab­oratory, which functioned formally as the departments of bacteriology and chemother­apy, and informally as the department of epidemiology, as well as doing routine lab analyses for the sanitorium; the Physiological Laboratory, which studied the physi­cal disabilities caused by an impaired respiratory system, and their effect on work; and the department of biochemistry, which studied the biochemical aspects of pulmonary disease. This was leading edge research that influenced the treatment of tuberculosis in this country and hastened its cure.

The Trudeau Sanitorium had been going out of business since 1946, when antibiotics were found to be effective against the tubercle bacillus. Once antibiotics were available, the cure no longer took months, or years, but days and weeks. Fewer and fewer patients made the journey to the mountains to get well, and when the patient population dwin­dled to a third of capacity, and the operating costs were running red, the directors voted to shut the place down.

The laboratory work, however, continued to be vital, and the foundation decided to keep it going somehow. Figuring out just exactly how fell to Trudeau. Not long out of the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University, the medical school that trained his father, Francis B. Trudeau, and his grandfather, Trudeau closed his private medical practice and took up the baton from his ailing father, the doctor who had made the sanitorium the premier tuberculosis facility the country after he had taken up the baton from his father.

“In 1954 I was called and told that the sanitorium was being closed and that I was in charge of the closing,” Frank Trudeau recalls. “I gave up my practice and spent the next three years presiding over the disposition of the old san. We had to place last seventy-five patients, place the staff, dispose of the facilities and do something with the endowment, which then totaled about two million dollars including the estate.

“When I say ‘we,’ I am using the royal we,” he adds. “It was mainly just me. There really weren’t very many others around at the time.”

The reports of the Trudeau Foundation for those years suggest the turmoil and disarray that beset those in Saranac Lake who were trying to manage a dying institution. Two years are condensed into one volume, 1949-1950, and then there is silence. It is broken eight years later by the foundation’s young, new president. In the report for 1959 he notes that a decision had been made to reorganize the laboratories and keep them in Saranac Lake. The sad business of settling the accounts of the old san, and negotiating with the American Management Association to buy the facility, was tempered by the promise of a new venture, the creation of the Trudeau Institute. There was money to raise, and bylaws to write and committees to appoint. Through the good graces of the Trudeau name and the reputation of the sanitorium, Frank Trudeau was able to put together a scientific-advisory board where each members-more luminous than the next. It included John Kidd, President personal physician, Rene Dubos, whose discovery of antibiotics was crucial to curingTB, and Dickinson Richards, the doctor’s old medical-school professor who “just to win the Nobel Prize for Medicine that year.”

The advisory committee was a magnet, drawing some of the world’s most sophisticated researchers to the backwaters of the Lower Saranac. They lured Professor Mackaness from the University of Adelaide, and he in turn attracted m Australia and other Commonwealth countries. As in the past, the primary concern was infectious disease, but with Mackaness in the lead that concern had shifted from a specific disease—tuberculosis—and its consequences, to the human body itself and how it responds to that disease. In his 1966 “Scientific Report to the Institute,” Mackaness, its newly appointed director, set out the institute’s research agenda for the first time:

“A decision was made that research within the Institute should be deliberately oriented towards the solution of problems bearing on the immunology of tuberculosis. One factor influencing this decision was a desire to preserve as much as possible the traditional interests of Trudeau.” Even more compelling, though, he suggests, is “our present ignorance regarding the mechanism of the protection offered by [TB] vaccination. In other words, we know only vaguely how the body defends itself against tuberculosis; and are unable to explain why immunity is not equally distributed throughout the body.”

As Frank Trudeau remembers it, the decision to focus on the immune system was decided for him when “Mackaness said to me one day, ‘You know the Tine test, where we test for TB and the skin turns red and bumpy if the bacillus is present. Well, no one knows how it does that.’”

Since those days, when a top-flight re­search facility in the Adirondack woods was still more of an idea than a reality, the institute has grown in size, in resources and in reputation. In addition to the twenty-member professional research staff, there are forty support staff and administrative personnel and an endowment of $24 mil­lion. In 1990 it was ranked seventh out of seventy-four independent research insti­tutes in the country by The Scientist, based on the number of publications it produced and the number of times those papers were cited in other publications. “The names of the other institutes among the first 10 will be familiar to many readers, with the exception, perhaps, of the relatively small Trudeau Institute of Saranac Lake, NY …, ” the article says. Trudeau was just ahead of the Scripps Clinic, in La Jolla, California, and right behind the Carnegie Institution, of Washington, D.C., both significantly larger facilities.

Even after such a sterling report card, and despite such breakthroughs as the discovery in 1970 by George Mackaness and his team of how white-blood cells communicate with one another, and the discovery by Robert North and his team nine years later that the body has the potential to destroy cancer cells but that the immune system is shut down by other cells before it can do so, the institute must work hard to recruit top scientists to its permanent staff. “When we advertise for jobs we always get a lot of responses,” North says. “Most are from people who are not aware how small and remote this community is. We’ve had people who think it’s a suburb of New York City because they see the New York State address. After hours of traveling they think something different.”

Brian Rogerson, a University of Chicago–trained molecular immunologist, is one of the rare scientists who made the journey and decided to stay. “I couldn’t believe this place,” he says. “The lake is right here. I was pretty sick and tired of big cities.

“But just because we’re out here in the Adirondacks doesn’t mean it’s any more relaxed,” he says. “There are still grants and research and publications to worry about. On the other hand, I don’t have to worry about teaching loads or committee meetings. I can do my research without distractions.” In three years at Trudeau, Rogerson has published four papers in major scientific journals.

“They are going to have to pry me out of here,” says Rogerson’s senior colleague, Alien Harmsen, who came to the institute seven years ago from the Lovelace Toxicology Institute, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Harmsen is an outdoorsman as well as an immunologist, and his office looks out to Boot Bay and Ampersand and Panther mountains, a landscape he knows as intimately as the pneumocystis he studies.

LOOKING BACK ON THE HISTORY OF THE TRUDEAU INSTITUTE, on the kinds of research it has conducted and the types of scientists it has engaged, one can draw a fairly accurate map of the course of infectious disease in this country. The ”death” of TB, the war on cancer, the spread of HIV, and now the reprise of tuber­culosis, and in an especially virulent, drug-resistant strain. Just last year the institute installed a high-tech, high-security tuberculosis lab (twenty air exchanges an hour, sealed windows, water-resistant surfaces), and once again the name Trudeau is gain­ing widespread attention and respect for its unprecedented TB research.

“We’re trained for tuberculosis,” says Robert North, who has been at the institute almost from the beginning and has recently announced his retirement. “There are very few places where you can give the disease to animals in an aerosolized form to the lungs, which you have to do to study its virulence. The institute is set up to do that.”

It has been forty years since the Trudeau Sanitorium closed, and these days the only active cases of tuberculosis in the City of the Sick are thought to be in the prisons at Ray Brook and Gabriels, formerly TB hospitals. Walking down the quiet halls of the Trudeau Institute, peering into labs stocked with jars of chemicals and beakers filled to the brim and test tubes labeled and racked, you can see Edward Livingston Trudeau’s troops massing again, taking up the arms at hand—the electron microscopes, the fluo­rescent-activated cell sorters—to do battle once more with the disease he nearly con­quered. But this is a versatile force, and this time they are also going after diseases that had not yet captured his imagination, and diseases that, even now, are unimaginable.

Twenty years after this article was published in Adirondack Life, the Trudeau Institute continues its work in Saranac Lake. To learn more about the institute’s latest research, visit


The Immunity Community Saranac Lake's Trudeau Institute has been at the forefront of the battle against disease for forty years.
The Headstone Tells All The untimely grave of a Bakers Mills family
Future Shock The coming Adirondack climate
The Truth about Teddy Modern politicians invoke Roosevelt's legacy—but do they get it?
Martha and Fred Visiting Weller Pond—where seventy years ago an unlikely friendship was forged—to discover the healing power of the woods.
Arto Monaco From Tinseltown to Land of Makebelieve: a portrait of Upper Jay's old master
The Search for Steven Thomas He vanished on Marcy's summit six years ago, but his family and friends still hope to solve the mystery
From the Archives: The Walk to Take Today
From the Archives: Forty Acres and a Vote How Gerrit Smith gave Adirondack land and hope to thousands of African-Americans
From the Archives: Blood Sport How I almost missed the Miracle on Ice
From the Archives: Ambushed Did hero worship trump history at Lake Placid’s John Brown Farm?
From the Archive: The Great Blowdown Forty years after the North Country's biggest, baddest weather
From the Archives: Far Out Cranberry Lake's summer of drugs
From the Archives: Scandal in Long Lake
Noah LaCasse: Presidential Hiking Mate
Victor Schwentker The gerbil genius and rat wrangler of Brant Lake
Winslow Homer’s Adirondack Life
Do You Know the People in These Old Photographs?
Voters Will Decide Fate of Raquette Lake Land
Swap Talk
Voices from the Adirondack Past
Registering Interest
From the Archive: A Tread Ahead The gripping story of a Big Moose invention that made the rounds
First Visits
Giving Dorothy Dehner Her Due
Adirondack Civil Rights Hall of Fame Champions of racial justice had strong North Country ties
Building a Better Bobsled
When Santa Claus Came to Town
New Hope for an Adirondack Community
The Most Interesting Man In the Adirondacks