Tuesday, 13 August 2013 00:00

Drosophila Celebrity T.H. Morgan's Fly Room About to Vanish

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fly lab oldThe brilliant but self-destructive geneticist, Calvin Bridges,
is the protagonist of the new feature film, The Fly Room,
from writer-director-scientist, Alexis Gambis.
Historic photo from the Betsey Bridges Family Collection.
There are more legendary places in science—Newton's apple tree or the bathtub of Archimedes—but of the real ones, there could be few more famous or harder to find than Thomas Hunt Morgan's Fly Room at Columbia University. This is the room where in 1910 Morgan and his students discovered "white" or w, the first sex-linked mutation in Drosophila melanogaster. Here began the modern era of quantitative biology and genetics. For a limited time, you can visit an uncanny version of the Fly Room itself, but only if you hurry to Brooklyn, NY.

Theoretically Morgan's laboratory space still exists inside Schermerhorn Hall, which still stands on Columbia's main campus on Manhattan's Upper West Side but the room has been divided and remodeled so many times since Morgan retired from Columbia in 1927, and accepted the offer from Caltech to move to Pasadena, that it's hard to locate and impossible to visit. But for those in the New York area who heard about the Fly Room in Bio 101 or who have seen the evocative historic photographs of Morgan and his "fly boys," there is a narrow window of time to actually step into the lab as it was nearly a century ago.

The window is across the East River, more exactly at the Pioneer Works Center in the Redhook section of Brooklyn, and it closes on August 20. It is not the "real" Fly Room but a close-as-possible replica built for the filming of a feature film that centers on one of Morgan's fly boys, the brilliant but troubled Calvin Bridges. The film, which is not surprisingly called The Fly Room, is the brainchild of Alexis Gambis. While doing his doctorate in molecular biology and genetics at Rockefeller University, Gambis became so appalled at the unrealistic way that science and scientists were portrayed in films and on TV that he founded the Imagine Science Film Festival in 2008. PhD in hand, Gambis has since gone onto film school at New York University (NYU). The Fly Room will be his master's thesis but it is no student project. A full-scale replica of the Fly Room was built in Brooklyn using historic floor plans, photographs, histories, and the memory of Betsey Bridges, the daughter of Calvin, who is now 95. Interviewed by Gambis, she clearly remembered visiting the fly lab in 1927 when she was 10. That became the "semi-fictional" plot of the film, according to Gambis, playing off Betsey's perspective of her father with whom she was never close and his increasingly erratic behavior.

fly lab 2It's a film set but it's the closest you can get
to Thomas Hunt Morgan's legendary Drosophila
laboratory with its worn furniture, primitive
instruments,and borrowed milk bottles.
Photo by Nate Dorr, Imagine Science Films.
Other contemporary visitors to Morgan's lab reported the overpowering smell of bananas, which turned out to be the ideal fruit fly fodder, and a haze of escapees from the milk bottles, which, according to legend, the fly boys stole from front stoops on their way to work in the early morning. Gambis says the origin of the milk bottles is one of the debatable elements of the Morgan story. "The lines are blurred between urban legends and historical facts," says Gambis. "I think many of the milk bottles came from the Columbia cafeteria. Still, most of the flies were kept in milk bottles although Calvin Bridges used to put flies in glass vials and carry them around in his socks."

Filming on the Fly Room set wrapped earlier this year but Gambis wanted to use the location for continuing public education. In July, Imagine Science Films initiated a series of free public lectures on genetics and related subjects by distinguished New York researchers, all to be delivered on the film set. Michael W. Young, a Rockefeller Univeristy geneticist, will speak on the molecular basis of circadian rhythms this Thursday (August 15). Ruth Lehmann, ASCB Council member and NYU School of Medicine professor, will conclude the series on August 20th with a talk on evolution and development. Until then, the film set remains open during business hours at the Pioneer Works Center.

The film, The Fly Room, is still being edited (although Gambis hints that there might be a sneak preview of at least part of the film at the Lehmann lecture) and looking toward release in 2014. Access to the historic replica, though, ends next week. It's your last chance to see the bare wooden floor, the hard-backed chairs, the primitive microscopes, and the squadrons of purloined glass milk bottles that Morgan and his followers used to transform a common household pest into an instrument of uncommon scientific discovery.

John Fleischman

John is ASCB Senior Science Writer and the author among other things of two nonfiction books for older children, "Phineas Gage: A Gruesome But True Story About Brain Science" and "Black & White Airmen," both from Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, Boston.

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