Mutable Matter on holiday – Part 1: Virus Island

View from a local dyke onto the Friedrich Loeffler Institute for Animal Health

After submitting my thesis, I felt that I really needed to go somewhere to ‘switch off’ for a while. A good place to do this is the German seaside as there is usually nothing going on but freezing cold water and wholesome food. Especially in the colder months, when not many people go there, apart from visitors to convalescent care institutions, the sea can properly unfold its hypnotic potential. The Baltic Sea island of Usedom seemed to fit into this category pretty neatly, and since my parents hadn’t seen me in a while, the whole Last family packed their trademark combination of swimming costumes and winter jackets and went Northeast. Yet already on the motorway, they got a taste of ‘that’s what you get when you try to take a researcher on a holiday’ moments. In the seemingly isolated space of the car, the airwaves carried the following messages to our innocent ears: ‘…the 100th anniversary of the Friedrich Loeffler Institute on the Isle of Riems near Greifswald, also called the ‘Virus Island’, which has never been opened to the public before…. thousands of visitors…. long queues to see historical sites as well as the new laboratories’ etc. Boom! – a new sightseeing stop was suddenly added to the holiday programme, with the slight drawback that we had to collect our room key pretty soon, and the queues WERE long… not to mention the 4 kilometre traffic jam, which was cleverly avoided by untying the bicycles from the back of the car and setting off for the institute in an almost special agent like manner – ‘action research’ got a whole new meaning that afternoon.

In the above picture you can see the main entrance of the institute, which researches animal diseases. As the anniversary indicated, it was founded in 1910 by researcher Friedrich Loeffler who so passionately experimented with animal viruses that his work had to be moved to a more secluded space – said Isle of Riems. Apparently, his earlier research has caused some annoying disease outbreaks, so, according to the radio host, Loeffler was very happy that his work was still valued, and therefore just relocated and not banned entirely. The German media couldn’t help but dub Loeffler the ‘Herr der Viren’ (Lord of the Viruses). Unfortunately, I missed a related TV programme which talked about another ‘Herr der Viren’, the current director of the Loeffler institute (the programme can be viewed here), but I can’t wait to write some pulp fiction using a character with the same name… As you can also see in the image, the Open Day was also characterised by some inevitable Bierfest atmosphere (all drinks 1 euro!). Despite their unbeatable offers, queueing time at the food stalls was frequently under 10 mins, as opposed to the wait for the institute’s museum (30 mins) and labs (over 1 hour). Of course, my father had to make the inevitable joke about where the meat for the bratwurst and burgers had come from, and he also made fun of his fellow Germans for flocking to anything that offers grilled sausages and good, cheap beer. It was actually quite fun to watch the locals munching away at their festival fare while queuing for more than 1 hour to see people in ‘space suits’ working on the dangerous organisms that potentially affect what ends up smothered in ketchup and mayonnaise (I’m loving it!). Luckily, the two parties (in both senses of the word) were separated by a glass border (feel free make up your own pun in the comment box below).

A similiarly amusing juxtaposition of research and consumption practices was noted by a fellow blogger from the College of Veterinary Medicina at the University of Illinois who went to the institute on a research trip: ‘We started off the morning with African Swine Fever … over coffee, juice, and cookies. A fine combination.’ Of course, it wasn’t all about the sausages, beer and coffee, but about curiosity about ‘what goes on there’, as one visitor put it.

In fact, short clips from interviews with visitors were broadcast on local radio throughout the day, assembling an overview of people’s motivations. In these snippets, many visitors commented on the ‘alien looking’ working conditions and pondered whether they could imagine working there. This must have been expected by the institute personnel which had put up recruitment stalls discussing job options from animal carer to microbiologist. People arrived with lots of questions, some of which I also overheard. These were answered by patient staff whose range had to cover anything from ‘can you go to the toilet in those suits?’ to ‘how do you dispose of the animals?’ (thankfully, no processed meat fabrication here!). Diseases and research were also explained through more elaborate set-ups: lectures (in German and English), films and images. And, of course, there were lots of speeches (for a condensed version of the programm, see here) and the obligatory ‘special stamp’ unveiling (the stamp, as well as the special 100 year anniversary publication about the institute, sold out in the first hour or so of the Open Day).

One of many animal themed brick panels at the institute

Needless to say, the staff were very pleased with a surprise turnout of more than 8,000 visitors, and the visitors themselves seemed pleased to have gotten an insight into the mysterious ‘Vireninsel’ they were barred from for 100 years. And all this, to quote my father again, ‘with decent sausage!’

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