Fans of the recent HBO series Chernobyl might find time to dig into the bonus commentary and discover that the character played by Emily Watson is, in fact, a composite of dozens of Russian scientists. Such are the benefits of fiction when recounting scientific achievement. In her ambitious non-fiction exploration of the 1964–65 Canadian-led expedition to Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, Jacalyn Duffin makes it clear there will be no detail left unexplored, no missing bibliographic data, and certainly nothing resembling a composite.
The result is a capacious book in which an old story is ushered back into the light, thanks to sometimes overwhelming bursts of detail. In many ways, Stanley’s Dream is several books crammed into one. It includes an account of the scientific journey to Rapa Nui, an extensive examination of what did and did not happen to the scientific findings in the decades since, and its own sequel in the form of Duffin’s trip to the island in 2017. There’s even a medical mystery embedded: near the end, Duffin reveals an unexpected hero.
She begins, however, with a flawed dreamer. The Stanley of the title is Stanley Skoryna, a surgeon and gastroenterologist from McGill University, described as “an upstart, a dreamer, and an ‘operator’ who espoused wild, ecological notions of humans and their diseases.” Skoryna thought big and wasn’t afraid to send pleading letters. He was a product of his time: an era when “concerns of overpopulation, pollution, and conflict resolution” generated efforts at global cooperation, including the International Biological Programme, a multi-year initiative brought about in “a spirit of postcolonial collaboration.” Back then, it seemed science had the potential to solve the world’s ills — medical and political. “The IBP,” Duffin writes, “would lay the groundwork for identifying solutions.”
Skoryna desperately wanted to be a part of the IBP, so he invoked his social talents and “fearlessly approached people whom others deemed far above him.” His mission took shape in discussions with a friend, a fellow expat Eastern European scientist named Georges Nógrády. “In 1961, if not before,” Duffin writes, “Skoryna and Nógrády began talking about the problems of the world.” They dreamed up a plan to study an isolated population. Perhaps they could analyze it both before and after contact with the rest of the world. “The community had to be small enough for a complete study, isolated enough that contact would provoke real change, and destined for an abrupt transformation.”
Luckily for them, an airport was scheduled for construction on one of the most remote islands on earth. The conditions on Rapa Nui, at first glance, looked perfect: “Georges and Stanley wondered how these sheltered people would weather the barrage of tourists bringing new microbes, carcinogens, and useless but tasty nutrients.” They envisioned a two-pronged before-and-after study. They’d travel to Rapa Nui, a Chilean territory, before the airport’s construction, and then they’d return once new microbes and social values had a chance to transform the place.
Duffin, a physician and professor emerita of the history of medicine at Queen’s University, makes it clear that in their haste they missed a few inconvenient truths about the island residents: “They assumed that the extreme geographic isolation and recent population recovery would make them ‘genetically inbred.’” This assumption was just one of the many slip-ups.
Time was of the essence. The airport was not going to remain unbuilt. Skoryna wrote a memorandum describing the project, and why they needed to get going — without delay. The quest made sense scientifically and politically. With the demise of the Avro Arrow and intellectuals bemoaning how Canada was acquitting itself on the cusp of its hundred-year performance review, the nation felt compelled to engage in confident international endeavours: “The world’s second largest country was approaching its centennial in 1967, it was to host that year’s World’s Fair, Expo 67, and yet it did not have its own flag, nor did it control its own Constitution.” An expedition to Rapa Nui could not solve the ills of Canada, but Duffin notes that Skoryna used these national preoccupations and anxieties to leverage moral support for what would become known as METEI — the Medical Expedition to Easter Island. Somehow, with his bravado and persistence, he was even able to grab a boat from the Canadian navy.
Ship in hand, Skoryna “garnered approvals from Chile, identified qualified (and less than qualified) scientists and support staff, and assembled the equipment and facilities needed for research and living on the remote island.” He hadn’t quite got all the funding, but small details could be overlooked.
Word went out, which led to what Duffin describes as a “stampede of willing participants.” The project’s initial scope now seemed too narrow. Skoryna and Nógrády “extended its original focus on human biology to sociology and anthropology. It would not stop at humans and their microbes but would include animals and plants too.”
Wouldn’t they need an anthropologist? What about a virologist who might be able to examine the outbreaks of kokongo, an epidemic brought by the yearly supply ship? They’d include specialists in ecology, physiology, and microbiology. They also brought a sociologist on board, Cléopâtre Montandon, who wore a bikini during the voyage that “practically caused a mutiny,” along with a CBC employee who was a skilled ham radio operator. There was even the young English writer and “vivacious adventurer” Carlotta Hacker, who wore Stanley down with her persistence and was awarded the role of research assistant.
And then came the navy. As the departure date crept forward, the pragmatic navy doctor Richard Roberts worried about issues unaddressed by Stanley the dreamer: “What about passports? What about malpractice insurance while METEI worked in a different country? What about surgical equipment, inoculations, and documentation?” No matter. The crew of the commandeered vessel HMCS Cape Scott would successfully unload an entire village “complete with a laboratory, clinic, radio station, truck, and all the housing, food, fuel, and supplies for a thirty-eight-person team.”
What did they know of Rapa Nui? Here was an island with a brutal history of smallpox, tuberculosis, and leprosy, known for its rapacious administrators and, of course, the stone moai that dotted the landscape. It was not exactly isolated; it was a blip long favoured by passing seafarers and explorers. Locals had tried to resist Chilean control, but in 1964 “the Rapanui were still subjugated by the military government with puppet elections, kept uneducated, obliged to work, and denied permission to travel freely even around their own island.”
So on November 16, 1964, the voyage began —setting off from Halifax for the unknown. The book becomes livelier when the voices of the many diaries kick in. With the wind at sixty knots, Helen Reid, a doctor in charge of medical examinations, wrote of the “tortured wallow” of the Cape Scott as it encountered storms on the first leg of its journey. The lumbering vessel — “the only ship,” its captain said, “that with its engines going full speed, could be overtaken by a seagull” — eventually hit placid waters.
Stanley’s Dream is a book about scientists studying a group of people, but Duffin reverses the lens to scrutinize the expedition members, themselves organisms in unaccustomed confinement. She quotes Reid again, who described “over two hundred people on board [and] over two thousand opinions.” Friction swirled around them. “And as they reached their destination,” writes Duffin, “they were afflicted with a growing awareness that preparations had been inadequate for the task ahead.” This included more crucial questions: “Why had METEI transported 50 pounds of chili powder but no rice and 300 pounds of pancake powder but no griddle?” Why didn’t anyone remember to bring nails?
The expedition encountered more complications on arrival, even as the data gathering began. Instead of a whodunit, Duffin recounts a medical can-they-do-it. “Not only would Rapa Nui be thoroughly inspected, measured, and imaged, but they would also donate samples of their fluids, excreta, skin, and hair,” she explains. Ecological, veterinary, and sociological projects complemented the medical examinations.
In narrating the work of METEI, Duffin seems, in a way, to be split between the two personalities of the project. The Stanley view is to catalogue every speck. The view of the navy doctor Richard Roberts focuses on a few chosen details. Stanley’s dream was a relentless accounting of the entire Rapa Nui biosphere. “The dreamer struggled for his goal of 100%,” Duffin writes. Roberts’s approach was different: “The perfectionist wanted less, demanded less, and tried to produce less but at a superior level — less quantity and more quality by follow up.”
Duffin cannot help but swing toward Stanley’s 100 percent technique, which gives the book heft, weight, and a sort of relentless inclusiveness. Everything is important, everything must be accounted for, including cocktail parties and wildlife explorations on the journey back. At times, she lists so many names a reader must let them wash past as if they’re wafting on the breath of a warm Rapa Nui breeze.
The book’s tension lies between these two methods — between Roberts and Stanley, “whose woeful leadership skills Roberts blamed for the poor preparation, the lack of information and structure, the personal insults, the disorganization and inefficiencies, and the many frustrations and missed opportunities.” The navy doctor wrote that the McGill surgeon was “bewitched by the idea of a 100% sample to be achieved by all means fair or foul.”
The only time Duffin shies away from her complete accounting is when she employs anonymity during a description of the sexual escapades of the expedition. Instead of remaining in isolation, the METEI crew truly got involved. Reid was “depressed” by the way her co-workers exploited the Polynesian openness of sexual expression and lack of interest in social taboos. “Even married men whom she liked took advantage of teenage girls and bragged about their exploits in seduction and avoiding venereal disease,” Duffin writes. One female member of the expedition was taken aside and warned “about not telling on the boys.” (Interestingly, Duffin didn’t find any METEI children upon her return in 2017.)
Reid emerges as Duffin’s best diaristic voice. Throughout the expedition, she sent honest dispatches back to her husband, describing the oversights of the mission. “The people are not isolated,” she reported back. “There have been two ships since Cape Scott left and we expect another within the week; . . . the islanders are of all races and colours.” Reid also documented the fraying tempers. She name-checked Lord of the Flies.
The internal workings of the group weren’t helped by reports that the Chilean government was sending a troopship to quell a local rebellion. In Duffin’s account there’s a revolution, and a riot so small it demands air quotes, a transition of power, and a touch of political intrigue, of a size befitting the island.
There was also intrigue within METEI. Cliques formed, sides were taken. One group committed an unspeakable scientific foul by tampering with the samples and cultures collected by Nógrády, who became, in effect, the Piggie of this Lord of the Flies. But there was more in store for Nógrády, a figure of mockery who carried his own pith hat to the island. “He brought home thousands of slides,” writes Duffin, “hours of movies, many carvings, and over 5,000 cultures of bacteria and fungi for analysis.” As Duffin explains, one of these cultures would result in “the most spectacular finding of the entire expedition.”
Much of Stanley’s Dream examines what did and did not happen upon the expedition’s return. Stanley never prepared a final report, but a wealth of scientific papers did emerge, as did a “chatty” memoir by Helen Reid, aimed at general readers. (“Goaded by fury and humiliation, she finished the book in just six weeks,” notes Duffin.)
Eventually it became clear that Stanley had no plan for publishing findings. When individual papers finally did appear, they showed up everywhere from Canadian Entomologist to the Journal of the Canadian Dental Association: “Well-intentioned researchers grew angry. Some gave up in frustration; others simply polished off their papers and sent them to scattered but respectable journals.” Little faith remained in Stanley or his ability to organize a return trip. His dream sputtered, weighed down by debts and rancour.
But Duffin achieves a fascinating bait and switch in the latter third of her book. A hero emerges. The voyage was Stanley’s dream, and even in 1970 he was still spinning and cajoling, hoping that his promotion of METEI “would allay the bad feelings and encourage donors.” But Duffin brings the focus back to our Piggie, Georges Nógrády. The much-maligned bacteriologist published only one peer-reviewed paper on his Easter Island work, but in the following years he remained enraptured with the island, and in an act of generosity he disseminated his 5,000 collected samples throughout the scientific establishment.
With great care, and a novelist’s eye for a surprise ending, Duffin traces the life of Nógrády’s test tubes of dirt. It’s here that her painstaking comprehensiveness yields results. One bacterial substance he retrieved became, eventually, after years of development, an antibiotic named after its island of origin: rapamycin, that “exciting new drug, with a novel structure and action against three different biological realms: anti-biotic, anti-immune, and anti-cancer.” By 2003, rapamycin was worth billions, but the link back to Easter Island was only tenuously established.
Duffin’s achievement is to show that dreams take many shapes. She’s clear-eyed about the failings of METEI. There were regrets, including the “shameful lack of respect and accountability to donors, taxpayers, and the Chilean government.” Yet Duffin’s assiduous work shows that METEI yielded valuable results, among them “an inspiring, fledgling project in the great sweep of environmental science, and a nostalgic evocation of an optimistic time when the country was ready and willing to do anything.”
In the years after Nógrády scooped his Rapa Nui dirt, Skoryna went on to produce novels and record music. “He never stopped dreaming,” Duffin says. And she’s right to choose the word “dream,” because the METEI expedition followed something of a dream logic: a quest to a far-off land where scientists squabbled, created indelible memories, and almost inadvertently returned with a mysterious substance that revealed itself as treasure.
Duffin’s book is ambitiously crowded. At its heart is a leaner, faster piece of medical science history. But she’s chosen a broad and responsible mandate to preserve and update the METEI legacy. She accounts for the memories and recollections of the survivors and relatives, shows the breadth of the scientific findings, and outlines unexpected successes. The long journey is arduous but worthwhile. Stanley dreamed of comprehending Rapa Nui. The island, however, had its own revelations to share.