Doc Gruber's Story--the second installment

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Doc Gruber's Story--the second installment

January 06, 2015 - 17:35

Samuel H. 'Doc' Gruber began studying sharks in 1961, perhaps before any other scientist had done full-time research on a live shark. During his long career, he founded the Bimini Biological Field Station (Shark Lab), the Shark Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)—a United Nations organisation based in Switzerland—and the American Elasmobranch Society. He has published over 200 scientific papers, and his research is still ongoing today.

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For Gruber, the study of sharks was more than a profession—it was a calling. He grew up in love with the sea from the earliest age and was already avidly collecting seashells and swimming at the age of three. His family lived in New York during World War II, but when it was over, they returned to their house in Miami Beach—the region had been taken over by the military during the war years. Compared to New York, Florida's warm blue ocean sparkled even more invitingly, and Gruber couldn’t keep away.

He excelled at swimming and practised springboard diving with a coach. Then he would wander on the beach collecting seashells until it was time to bike down to the docks to see the sports fishermen come in. He was captivated by the bizarre appearance of many of the species of fish and sharks, and loved to draw them. His family still recalls that he was infamous for leaving his shoes on the fishing dock; he would go there after school, take them off and forget them. By the time he was 12 years old, he was teaching himself to scuba dive. His childhood was spent pursuing his fascination with the life of the sea.

Between 1952 and 1956, Gruber attended high school at a military prep school, and, as a result of a growing interest in the military, he accumulated a respectable collection of antique guns dating from the US Civil War. So, when he found the scuba gear he wanted, he traded one of his guns for it.

At that time, there was no scuba dive shop and no PADI training courses. His tank came equipped with straps to attach it directly to his back, and he had to use the fire station's compressor to fill it. There was no buoyancy control device.

The double-hose “Jet Air” regulator he had was not a two-stage regulator, such as what we use today, but had just one stage. The hose took the air pressure in the tank straight to you. So if you had 3,000 lbs of air pressure in your tank and the membrane broke (which it often did!), you would get 3,000 lbs straight into your face!

Gruber dove off the beach and descended usually to about 20 feet. The reef was covered with soft corals, tubeworms, a myriad of invertebrates and a healthy complement of fish. He loved the submarine environment and never tired of exploring it. Though he was almost always alone, he never got into trouble on his many diving expeditions.

Career choices

Gruber emerged from military prep school with a deep love of flying and the military. He enrolled initially at Emory University with the idea of becoming a medical doctor and majored in premedical studies.

While at university, he trained as an Air Force Reserve Officer (ROTC) and wanted to learn to become a pilot. He was qualified and could have enlisted and gone into military-cadet training. Eventually, he did learn to fly.

One day, he followed a beautiful girl, Betty Hunter, into a ballet school. Without further deliberation, he signed up. As a springboard diver, he had already gained the poise and grace required for ballet dancing, and as with his submarine explorations, he poured his heart and soul into his work. For three years, he danced semi-professionally with a ballet company in Atlanta.

When he told his family that he wanted to be a ballet dancer, they were not enthusiastic. He then suggested he could become a jet pilot and fly for the USAF, but they were concerned it was too dangerous. They felt that being a marine biologist was close to what they wanted for him, but when he told them that he wanted to study sharks, they were dismayed.

Nevertheless, he went ahead and began his studies at the University of Miami. (The full story of his research is told in Part I of this trilogy, in X-RAY MAG issue ).

Crisis

In 1976, just as his findings on shark vision were published and he was moving on to the study of wild sharks, he suddenly got cancer. It went into remission after six months. As he recovered, he did all he could to stay healthy. With his usual intensity, he practised meditation, visualization techniques, guided imagery and chanting. He had been a vegetarian for many years.

But the cancer returned in 1982. “You don’t usually get a second chance with lymphoma,” he said, explaining that there is a 30 percent mortality rate right away and only a tiny percentage of spontaneous recoveries.

In his case, the cancer got worse and worse. He tried everything available, but nothing even began to restore his health. Then during an experimental procedure in 1986, at Stanford University in California, he had a revelation.

An epiphany

It happened while he was hooked up to a plasmapheresis machine, via a catheter into a major artery. It was filtering out his antibodies and returning the blood to his body through another tube. During this procedure, he was faxing back and forth with his graduate student in Miami preparing a proposal to the National Science Foundation to renew their funding.

Fax machines in those days had to be fed with rolls of heat-sensitive paper. As the fax came out, each page had to be cut off. Then the next page would come. Gruber was at the fax machine—receiving pages, correcting them and sending them back—when the plasmapheresis machine developed a problem and the blood began leaving his body faster than it was returned.

He fell unconscious while the rolls of paper continued coming out of the fax machine, until he was covered with scrolls of paper. And that was how the nurse finally found him—unconscious and covered with faxes.

When she had put the situation right and awakened him, he lay there, gazing out and wondered, “What is wrong with this scene?” He was supposed to be dying and he was faxing.

“I should not be writing all of this,” he thought, “but that is how committed I am.” He knew that something was wrong. “I decided that if I lived, and that was not at all clear—it was clear that I was not going to live. But if I lived, I wanted to start a little research station, in the Bahamas, where I knew there were still sharks. I had been working in the Florida Keys, where all the sharks had disappeared, all the sharks were fished out.”

But he did not get better; he could not write anymore and he lost the grant. His doctor told him he was going to die and that he would be well advised to write his will, pay his debts and prepare himself for the inevitable.

Determined to live

But Gruber paid no attention. Though he was gravely ill, he would not give up. He was receiving strong chemotherapy to kill the fast growing cancer cells and was sick from it. His mouth was so painful that he had to drink xylocaine to numb it before he could take a mouthful of food. But the xylocaine wore off after about one minute, so he had to drink more before he could take another bite. So he was constantly drinking liquid xylocaine to numb his mouth. Furthermore, as a result of the treatments, he had gone partially deaf.

He travelled to Boston in 1988 to get a highly experimental bone marrow transplant but was told that his cancer was just too far gone. However, he argued and insisted until the doctors agreed to give him one.

First, he had to be heavily dosed with a toxic substance called cyclophosphamide to lower the cancer cell count as much as possible, after which the poison would be washed out of his body with litres of saline fluid. The procedure required three doses a month apart.

After that, the doctors would harvest bone marrow from his hips, treat it with antibodies to remove all cancerous cells and irradiate him in a giant "microwave oven" to kill the rest of his bone marrow. Then the cleaned bone marrow could be injected back in.

After the first infusion of cyclophosphamide, the doctors sent him home, told him to take his temperature every three hours and to return if it spiked. It spiked in 24 hours—he had picked up a random infection, so the doctors sent him home to Miami in a wheelchair and told him not to come back.

It took him a month to recover from the infections in hospital, while he tried to come to terms with his mortality. He looked back over his life and was glad—he had studied sharks, he had a wife and children, he flew planes, and he felt that at least if he died, he had already had a good life.

Not yet ready to go.
Gruber went back to his oncologist, Dr Martin Liebling, and asked for more chemotherapy but was refused on the grounds that the cancer was too far advanced. Liebling held out no hope and suggested that Gruber was in denial about his true condition. But Gruber would not take no for an answer. He assured Liebling that he knew his own body and had no doubt that he would respond. Still, Liebling refused.

But Gruber persevered, desperately trying to persuade him, and finally he suggested darkly, “If you don’t give it to me, I’m going to die and you will have killed me.” So Gruber got the chemotherapy, and as he expected, he had a good reaction to it. The tumour shrank and he felt a little better. And that was when he consulted with his friend, Dr John Miller, who was a television reporter for health and science.

The miracle happens

In 1989, there was no Internet at that time but there was already a medical Internet called Medline, which had been established in the 1970s. Gruber and Miller got on it together and did some in-depth research. They found mention of a drug that was said to have an unexpected effect on late stage lymphoma patients. In a little paper on the response of leukaemia patients to a drug called Fludarabine was a footnote that said that two out of 11 late stage lymphoma patients had a positive response to it.

Gruber looked for a way to get into the testing program, found that there was one at Scripps Research Institute and applied to get in. But they would not accept him because he was “too late”. There was another in Texas, and they would not accept him either.

Then he learnt that his oncologist, Liebling, was involved in that trial. It was only a phase-one trial, meaning that the drug was just at the stage of being checked for toxicity—the stage of finding dosage levels was still far in the future. So he went back to his doctor, showed him the journal and asked to be treated with Fludarabine.

Liebling read it and his eyes widened. He took Gruber by the hand and started the infusion. The drug was given to him on a "compassionate treatment" basis [ed.— a case in which, when no other treatment is available, a seriously ill patient is treated with a new, unapproved drug—according to cancer.org] and it cured him. Very quickly, his cancer was gone.

Since 1976, Gruber had been longing to live just long enough to see his girls graduate from high school, and he was indeed able to see them graduate and go to Harvard. One became a surgeon, and one a law professor. He had grandchildren, and he saw it all.

International research

Although he was still seriously ill and still under chemotherapy, Gruber began to feel fairly well between treatments. From 1984 to 1986, he was part of an international research project and travelled extensively, with projects in Okinawa, Egypt and Israel.

Egypt and Israel had signed a peace accord in the seventies, when Menachem Begin, from Israel, and Anwar Sadat, from Egypt, met with Jimmy Carter. Though it cost Sadat his life, it included a cultural and scientific exchange in which American, Israeli and Egyptian scientists would get together and do projects with one another. Gruber was involved with one of these projects.

There were two pots of money. One was called the US Israeli Binational Science Foundation, and Gruber was given a grant for that. There were two Israeli professors on the Israeli side, Natalie Prior and Elliott Zlotkin, and Gruber was on the American side.

The Egyptian program was called PL484. During World War II, the Americans had provided the Egyptians with a considerable amount of equipment to fight the Germans, which had been sold on "lend lease". The controlled Egyptian currency could never leave Egypt, so it remained in the banks, accumulating interest every year. The US government contractors and other government personnel were able to use the interest for official visits.

Gruber got money from both pots and spent two summers in Israel. He spent another in Egypt; and the Egyptian and the Israeli professors went to the United States to work with him in Florida too.

In spite of his medical condition, he was so glad to be alive that he enjoyed every moment. At the Heinz Steinitz Marine Biological Laboratory, he was researching the Moses sole (a toxic fish and shark repellent). He would drive up from Eilat to Tel Aviv to get his chemotherapy, and when he felt better, would return to his work. With some students and family members, he dove in the Red Sea, travelled around on camels and had the time of his life.

The Shark Lab

After recovering from lymphoma, Gruber quickly got back his strength. He went to his dean at the University of Miami and told him, “You have to let me start my shark lab.” He reminded him that he had brought in six million dollars over the years in grants and told him the story about the fax machine. Then he asked for a commission to start his own research station in the Bahamas.

He knew there were still sharks in the Bahamas because he had been studying them there in the course of his bio-energetics research four times a year. After eight years and 32 two-week cruises through those islands, he knew exactly where he wanted to set it up.

He told the dean he didn’t need money—he had a business plan. He only asked for permission to teach his marine ecology course in Bimini instead of at the University in Miami. The dean gave him the green light. Gruber and his wife mortgaged their house and found a location in which to build the center. At last, he made the transition from being a pure, sensory physiologist working in the laboratory, to a field ecologist, studying the behavioural ecology of the lemon shark.

The Bimini Biological Field Station

Bimini is like a little natural lab, more like a marine lake than the open ocean. It was a very shallow, enclosed lagoon. It had been known since the 1940s that Bimini was a nursery because of the many lemon shark pups there. There had even been a marine station—the Lerner Marine Laboratory—in that location from 1948 to 1972, which had accumulated much information about them.

Furthermore, as a lemon shark nursery, Bimini was unique. Gruber had studied lemon sharks in several different places—in Brazil, the Florida Keys, on the west coast of Florida and in the Grand Bahama Islands—and Bimini was different. It was an isolated mangrove island, and the lemon sharks were constrained to stay near it.

In the other locations, there was so much habitat that they could roam far away, so it was not easy to find the same shark again and again. After the first six or seven months of life, most left their birth sites and were gone. But in Bimini, the young sharks remained for six or seven years, or even more, so it was possible to catch them repeatedly.

Back in 1990, Gruber was looking for a site to establish the laboratory when a friend, Pat O’Neal Esq., contacted him to say that he had a house available. Previously, during the late seventies and eighties, when Gruber and his research teams had used research vessels to pursue their bio-energetics and autecological studies, they had used O'Neal's beach for their film teams and as a landing field for their ultralight aircraft.

A double-wide trailer had been put on the site in 1962, and over the years, many people had lived in it. O’Neal had bought it from drug dealers when they were kicked off the island, ironically for the use of the police department. He had renovated it for them, and as a result, it was more like a barracks than a house. But the police had never moved in.

O’Neal rented it to Gruber for a pittance on a handshake. All along, till 2013, they never signed a piece of paper. And O'Neal only increased the rent once during the 25 ensuing years.

Although Gruber had to start from scratch to set up his shark lab, he found many friends who were willing to help. He hired a carpenter to work on the building, outfitted the laboratory and built a dock. A pilot from US Airways who was interested in his work, loaned him a huge yacht to bring all of the supplies from Florida into Bimini. When he arrived with everything needed to set up a hotel-like living area, with a kitchen and bedrooms, the yacht got stuck on the sand flats in the receding tide, and they had to get a tug boat to pull it back to deep water.

Gruber had no official status with the government of the Bahamas. He rented the property and was allowed to carry out his work there under the same research permit (issued by the Department of Fisheries to the University of Miami 20 years before) that he had used while conducting his studies from research vessels. The University of Miami would not recognise his facility because they were afraid of the liability. But starting in 1988, he was selected as a member of the Bahamas National Trust Council and remained one for 16 years.

The government was perfectly happy with the presence of the shark lab, for the researchers made the region look like a paradise, especially in the television documentaries filmed there. They did have trouble for a time because of their anti-development stance, when there was an effort to kick them out, but the Bimini Shark Lab was ultimately so beneficial that it stayed. Finally, in 2013, Gruber purchased the property and incorporated it for the first time. ■

Ila France Porcher, author of The Shark Sessions, is an ethologist who focused on the study of reef sharks after she moved to Tahiti in 1995. Her observations, which are the first of their kind, have yielded valuable details about their lives, including their reproductive cycle, social biology, population structure, daily behaviour patterns, roaming tendencies and cognitive abilities. Her next book, On the Ethology of Reef Sharks, will soon be released.

Originally published

on page 78

X-Ray Mag #65

January 06, 2015 - 18:22
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