On a hot august afternoon, a station wagon with connecticut license plates and a backseat crammed with children and beach chairs pulls up to what seems like another nifty tourist stop in newport. this is on ocean drive, a series of roads that wind for miles along the city’s rocky atlantic coast, offering sensational saltwater views, yet only glimpses of the audacious summer mansions of the nation’s old industrial barons, alongside much tamer trophy houses of the newly rich.
The car has stopped next to a setting that seems plucked from the Irish countryside: neatly tended pastures, rocky outcroppings, generous shade trees, cattle grazing behind waist-high stone walls — a widescreen postcard that virtually begs sightseers to hurry on in and to bring the kids, too.
But a young man with a slender pony tail, wearing shorts and a T-shirt bearing the logo of the SVF Foundation, bends over a car window to say that no, it’s closed to the public. When the driver seems skeptical, he explains it’s a "scientific" facility. The message is spelled out more bluntly in signs just past the entrance, telling intruders they’ve trespassed onto a "biosecure area" and to "please leave immediately." Other signs warn of video surveillance.
The actual goings-on at the 45-acre "farm" are even more exotic than those warnings suggest. Visitors offered official passage may feel they’ve stepped into a summer adventure movie, the kind featuring a secret island where uniformed operatives rush around in go-carts and scientists labor in high-tech labs as they carry out the world-altering fantasy of their fabulously wealthy employer. Indeed, the Newport workers are uniformly decked out in identical T-shirts and shorts, mumbling into two-way radios as they pilot John Deere mini-trucks toward a castle-like cluster of stone buildings that really do contain laboratories financed by one of world’s richest women.
A GENETIC TREASURE CHEST
The mission of the Ocean Drive farm isn’t too far from the plot of the 1993 thriller Jurassic Park, in which scientists used genetic material miraculously preserved from a bygone era to replicate extinct creatures. But while "Jurassic Park" reproduced Tyrannosaurus Rexes and other dinosaurs, the creatures of Newport’s SVF Foundation are smaller, less threatening and even downright cuddly: Tennessee Fainting Goats, Dutch Belted Cows, and Santa Cruz Sheep.
The idea, nonetheless, is the same: that genes from farm animals dating back to the days of Washington and Jefferson can be collected, stored, and used in the future to replicate extinct livestock.
Already, the farm’s scientists have proved they can do it. Last year, they harvested an embryo from a Tennessee Fainting Goat, froze it, implanted it in a modern female goat, and five months later, witnessed the birth of "Chip" — an exact replica of the rare breed.
Besides the common sense idea of preserving a slice of American history, there’s a practical goal: to stockpile the genetic traits of older breeds so that — following some catastrophe — they can be used to help restore the modern food chain. Agricultural disasters are hardly unknown, after all. The Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak that swept United Kingdom farms in 2001 resulted in the destruction of six million farm animals, mostly to stop the spread of the infection, and cost $10 billion.
Since 2002, the Newport farm has collected more than 640 embryos, along with semen and blood samples — collectively known as "germplasm" — from two kinds of sheep, two strains of goats, and one line of cows. Over a 20-year span, SVF plans to preserve the genetics of 20 different animals in its gleaming tanks of super-cooled nitrogen, selecting species considered most at risk for extinction. As the foundation’s literature says, "The germplasm preserved by SVF Foundation will help protect public health by creating a way to guard the nation’s food supply from accidental or intentional losses of livestock."
But this can also be stated as a question: Can older breeds, or at least their genetic components, really make a difference should calamity sweep the country’s vast agricultural herds and flocks? Do yesterday’s farm animals have something to teach today’s super cows, pigs, chickens and other specialized livestock that have made the United States the world’s agricultural powerhouse?
"It is not how I would spend my money," says Steven A. Zinn, an associate professor of animal sciences at the University of Connecticut, after I described the program. Zinn says it’s not certain what qualities the older animals really have. But other experts, including George Saperstein, a professor at the Tufts University veterinary school who serves as the SVF Foundation’s scientific director, say the work is a "gift to mankind."
This gift appears so far to have cost Dorrance Hill Hamilton at least $10 million.
FROM SOUP TO BUCKs
Over the years, Hamilton’s wealth has been variously estimated by Forbes magazine at $930 million to $1.6 billion, with the latest guess an even $1 billion — the same as for her sister, Hope Hill vanBeuren, who has a home in neighboring Middletown.
Both are granddaughters of Dr. John T. Dorrance, a chemist who in 1897 invented the condensed soup process for his uncle’s Campbell Soup Company. The sisters are part of a trust that, according to Campbell’s proxy statement, controls nearly 12 percent of the New Jersey company’s stock.
Hamilton, or Dodo as she’s called by friends (a nickname possibly bestowed by childhood companions unable to pronounce Dorrance), is known as a philanthropist, but details about her personal life are scant. She has no listing, for example, in Who’s Who in America. Now in her mid-70s, she has homes in Newport, Florida and Wayne, Pennsylvania, her base of operations near Philadelphia. Hamilton, who declined, through a representative, a request for an interview, has three children, including Margaret H. Duprey, a SVF Foundation trustee.
The Providence Journal’s G. Wayne Miller, when he was writing a 2000 series about wealthy Newporters, "A Nearly Perfect Summer," wangled a lunch with Dodo.
They dined on asparagus-onion quiche, baked tortilla chips, and a salad with tomatoes Fed-Exed from her Pennsylvania gardens. Dodo and her friend, "Oatsie" (Marion Oates Charles) chatted about raising flowers and an upcoming Newport Flower Show, of which Hamilton was chairwoman.
Other bits and pieces show up in news reports. Her husband, Samuel M. V. Hamilton, died in 1997 of cancer, and Mrs. Hamilton subsequently donated $3 million to Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University, honoring three doctors who cared for him, and gave $25 million for a university medical education building.
Kathryn E. Leonard, 59, a one-time public school teacher, says she got to know Hamilton when she knocked at the philanthropist’s door in the summer of 1997.
Leonard was upset about the "Swiss Village Farm" on Ocean Drive. The property, rare, rugged open space in Newport, was suddenly to be auctioned by a federal agency that held mortgage to the property. Leonard, then a Newport City Council member, says she was afraid the land would fall into developers’ hands and that there wasn’t time for the city to intervene.
Then then-councilor says she hardly knew Hamilton, having met her previously at a party, and the butler who greeted her looked skeptical. But Samuel Hamilton beckoned her in, and Mrs. Hamilton soon agreed to step into the bidding process, enlisting the help of another wealthy summer resident, A. L. Ballard. Their $1.55 million bid won.
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Issue Date: August 12 - 18, 2005
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