Events far in the past conspire to bring us David A. Flemer's story and reveal his deep relationship to the Chesapeake, but before we go too far, a little background is in order.
After Maryland was settled in 1634, Lord Baltimore took possession of a wide swath of land east of the Patuxent River and called it Eltonhead Manor. He parceled out lands under patent from this largess and those around the river's mouth were eventually owned by the Bourne family. Inside the bight of the Patuxent's opening into Chesapeake Bay was a small sandy island known as Bourne's Island, and as the land was further subdivided, Somervell's Island. The Somervells' either built or took over the single late-18th century house on that island.
Meanwhile, the Virginia Northern Neck proprietors in 1694, barely two generations after the Jamestown settlement, were busy parceling out the former Powhatan Native American Confederation's land and wrote a patent to Charles Kill for 1,000 acres that would eventually bear two names, Ingleside (now the famous Winery) and Walnut Hill.
With the settlement of the Chesapeake's perimeters came the exploitation of the Bay's natural oyster beds. Several centers of what was basically an industrial mining activity developed: around Norfolk, VA; at Crisfield, MD, on Tangier Sound; and around broad-shucking and marketing facilities in Annapolis and Baltimore.
In the mid-19th century, that well-placed island in the Patuxent attracted entrepreneur Isaac Solomon, who married Somervell's daughter and turned the Island now bearing his name into a large factory operation, shucking and packing shellfish. Under his ownership, the old house became known as "the old Solomon's house," the name it was to bear for at least the next 130 years.
In the 1870s and 1880s, the Flemers, a Belgian family of pharmacists, eminent enough in their field that their patriarch had the title "doctor professor," emigrated to the Washington, DC, area where they prospered. Flemer scions bought the Walnut Hill plantation and there, in 1934, David Andrew, youngest of five, was born. His godfather, David W. Eaton - after whose family the Eaton Peaks in Alaska are named- researched and wrote "Historical Atlas of Westmoreland County, VA," through which the history of Walnut Hill is made known to us.
Eaton gave young Dave an old, brass oil-immersion objective microscope, which despite an upbringing as a Northern Neck farm boy, turned his nose in the direction of science. Finances were not as abundant for the youngest boy's education and help for his undergraduate education in biochemistry at the College of William and Mary was provided by his Aunt Sue West, who had married a prosperous Washington, D.C. builder.
While at William and Mary, Flemer met and fell in love with Alice Weir, who was a year behind him in college. Dave earned his bachelor's degree in 1957 and entered graduate school at he University of Richmond under the well-known fisheries biologist William S. Woolcott. He began studying the food habits of freshwater fishes in Tuckahoe Creek, a tributary to the James River. Alice helped him on field trips.
Flemer scraped and saved as much as possible, getting a Bureau of Richmond Police Taxi Driver's License and hauling passengers at night. He put together enough money for the honeymoon he wanted, but wore that taxi drivers' hat forever. It became his trademark as a biologist over the decades. He and Alice were married in 1958, and she began a teaching career.
With a master's degree under his belt, Flemer went on to do his doctoral research at Rutgers University under Dr. Francesco B. Trama, studying another wide spectrum in the ecological food chain: phytoplankton primary production. He followed the then-innovative method of E. Steeman Nielsen, using the uptake of radioactive labeled C-14, first proposed in 1951. Flemer received his doctorate from Rutgers in 1963. He immediately found a job teaching at Oswego University, part of New York's college system. It paid the bills, but the future for his active mind would be in research. Flemer began looking around.
The Chesapeake Biological Laboratory had been started by Reginald Van Trump Truitt around 1919 in a small building by the harbor on Solomons Island, virtually among the remnants of Isaac Solomon's once bustling oyster-packing plant. By the time that Truitt was named director of the CBL it was a much larger laboratory complex, and an arm of Maryland's Natural Resources Institute. Truitt was succeeded by biologist L. Eugene Cronin.
By the early 1960s, as Cronin's career advanced, the Chesapeake region was undergoing almost violent change as communities at the head of the Bay's tributaries were in the throes of rapid and unchecked development. The demand for electric power to serve this growth was spiraling out of control, and the slowly awakening environmental consciousness clashed hard with these interests.
Cronin and his colleague, Joseph A. Mihurski, were looking for new talent: idea people who could change the way traditional scientists were evaluating estuarine ecosystems. Flemer was selected because of his interest in the primary producer community - phytoplankton - which is a baseline for the estuarine food chain.
He jumped at the chance and in 1964, the Flemers settled in to build careers - and family - near Solomons Island. The CBL had an innovative staff making an intellectual community of considerable excitement. Scientists like Don Heinle studying zooplankton, Bob Ulanowicz, a mathematical ecologist, Bill Dovel studying fish - a panoply of eclectic thinkers surrounded Flemer. Walt Boynton, now a distinguished Chesapeake ecologist, was one of many summer students. There was good science and an unalterable tradition whenever weather permitted: a daily lunchtime volleyball game played in a field adjacent to the lab.
Two major power plants had been constructed on the Patuxent and Potomac rivers and a third nuclear-powered plant - immense for those times - was under construction directly on the Bay. New environmental thinking had recognized the potential negative impacts of these huge facilities on the Chesapeake and its tributaries. More plants were proposed for the future, and studies were mandated by the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and ultimately by the then-new agency, the EPA, to determine what these effects were and how they could be mitigated.
There was also a complicated political side to this struggle. Three principal laboratories, including the CBL, were positioned on the Chesapeake; Johns Hopkins University's Chesapeake Bay Institute, headed by Don Pritchard, lay to the north; The Virginia Institute of Marine Science, with Bill Hargis as director, lay to the south. These three strong men; Cronin, Pritchard and Hargis - often called "The Triumvirate" - had differing expertise, differing ideas about what was wrong with the Bay and what should be done to fix it.
In 1968, Mihurski, considering that all three power plants took large amounts of water from the Bay to cool the steam which turned their electric generators, pushed hard to investigate temperature change in the Bay as a "master factor" and announced a Baywide conference to look into its effects. Harold Haskin, one of Flemer's former Ph.D. committee members at Rutgers, piled a bunch of us graduate students in a big vehicle and drove us to Solomons Island for this conference. We heard from all sides in the power plant controversy and scientists from all three major labs on the Bay.
For me, naive to science politics, this was an eye-opener. The CBL had just commissioned their new research vessel, Orion, and the lab's scientists were eager to show off their equipment and methodology. Flemer and I had a lot in common, and the result of this meeting was my first contributed paper, to the Natural Resources Institute's journal, Chesapeake Science, which dealt with the methods I was using to assess the primary production of phytoplankton. Flemer was a senior author on the more than 200-page report (NRI-71-6) synthesizing the primary production field studies on the Bay as of 1970, and later made presentations in Plymouth, England, as well as Paris and Berlin.
In addition to the complicated internecine discussions, the electric utilities, concerned about interference with their operations, engineering and bottom lines, had hired their own consulting organizations to present industry positions to potential federal regulators. The biological side of telling the power plants what was happening to marine life around their facilities was entrusted to Ruth Patrick, a rare female scientist at that time, who was chair of the Department of Limnology at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. I had yet to defend my doctoral dissertation, but was hired to assist in this effort.
Cronin considered us no better than "biostitutes," being on the take for big business. But we were simply trying to do good honest work and describe what was really happening. Flemer understood this and invited my technicians and me to perform our measurements in a series of round-the-clock and estuarywide studies to characterize the Bay and Patuxent River. This helped change Gene Cronin's attitude and barriers slowly fell away.
In 1969, fisheries scientist Bill Dovel was renting the old Solomons house from a U.S. Navy pilot at nearby Patuxent River Naval Air Station, who was transferred to Florida. Dovel tipped off Flemer that the house was for sale and - again with some help from Aunt Sue - the Flemers cobbled together the $28,000 needed to buy this historic house commanding miles of waterfront view and within a two-minute walk to work!
There was no room in the old house for both a washer and dryer, and Alice Flemer's laundry flapped on a clothesline each summers' day. It was doing so one August afternoon, Alice recalled, when they brought Dave home with a broken ankle, thanks to a depression in the field where he stepped to serve the volleyball.
Out-of-season Hurricane Agnes was only a tropical storm when it swept over the Bay watershed in June 1972. Agnes was at least a 100-year event, and for one of the first times, all of the scientific institutions pitched in - largely without immediate funding - to characterize what was happening to the ecologically stunned Bay. It was a massive effort and resulted in the publication of a significant volume of literature. Flemer made me and my staff part of this.
The Bay did not rebound, as we believed it had during the storms of previous centuries, and the Bay community had to work out among themselves an equitable means of parceling out the work of understanding why.
The Chesapeake Research Consortium, formed in 1972 with Robert H. Roy as director, was the result of this ultimately successful collaboration, now embracing six research organizations. This level of cooperation made it possible the following year for Republican Sen. Charles McC. Mathias to visit each of our laboratories soliciting input on what had happened to the Bay, why the rebound had failed, and what Congress could do to rectify what seemed irreparable damage to this multibillion-
dollar ecosystem. Grants totaling $5 million annually resulted.
While an integral part of this broad planning and grant-writing effort, Flemer had a wife and growing family to support. Their boys needed a more comprehensive education than could then be obtained in a still rural Maryland county. When an opportunity at the relatively new federal EPA became available, he took it.
From there his expertise and vision helped process and synthesize the vast amounts of information scientists were pouring in as a result of these Chesapeake Bay Program research grants. The Bay Program was a force apart, drawing upon varied sources like the University of Delaware, from whence came people like Bob Biggs and Virginia Tippie.
Flemer was able to synthesize ideas and push theory out in front of them. He recognized that as the Bay's broader problems became clear - an excess of nutrients, increasing turbidity, collapsing fisheries and the loss of submerged aquatic vegetation - a long-term monitoring effort was imperative. There was, at that point, no way to fund Flemer's concept looking forward, but he saw clearly and wrote in detail how the creation process should be thought through. He approached me, and my colleagues - who'd built an estuarine monitoring program for the District of Columbia's reach of the Potomac. I thus became a reviewer for his work.
The opportunity for stable, long-term monitoring was realized in 1983 with establishment of the Chesapeake Bay Liaison Office. Flemer published his blueprint in the great volume of Bay Program Synthesis documents, and his plan became a foundation for today's Chesapeake Bay multistate monitoring program, now entering its 29th year. Copies of that old report are scarce, but it is instructive to revisit what he wrote, as revision after revision occurs in today's monitoring as a result of fiscal and political whim.
Flemer moved to the EPA's Gulf Breeze Laboratory on the Gulf of Mexico, where for 12 years he did defining research on eutrophication in Perdido Bay and collaborated in a spectrum of publications. He and Alice eventually moved back home to Northern Virginia, and in 2004 they bought a vacation cottage near the head of Machodoc Creek, a tidal tributary to the Potomac. There he would fish, boat, enjoy the company of friends and family and boast about his growing crop of grandchildren.
We met again when he returned to the CBL at Solomons to visit the lab and his old home: the Isaac Solomon house, which is now a visitor and exhibit center for the lab and part of the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science. He shared with me then that he'd been treated for pancreatic cancer and was, thankfully, in remission. His respite lasted a year and a half, but our mutually promised weekend together never materialized, and Dave passed away at home, among his family in Northern Virginia in July 2011. It was the loss of an old friend and adviser to me but a greater loss to the wide and troubled Chesapeake.