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Explore a Reconstruction of a Landmark Genetics Laboratory, Swarmed with Flies

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Entrance to the Fly Room at Pioneer Works (all photographs by the author)

Our understanding of genetics formed in a cluttered Columbia University lab swarmed with fruit flies. And now you can explore that 1920s lab yourself in a meticulous recreation in Brooklyn.

Filmmaker and geneticist Alexis Gambis was drawn to the story of Thomas Hunt Morgan and his egalitarian work with students and other researchers in room 613 in Columbia’s Schermerhorn Hall, and set about making a film on one of the lab’s most complicated characters: the brilliant, but womanizing, Calvin Bridges, and his relationship with his daughter Betsey. While the original lab — where fruit flies were bred in milk bottles and the overripe bananas that fed them were suspended from the ceiling amid the smoke wafting from researchers’ cigarettes and pipes — has long since been dismantled, Gambis used archive photographs and floor plans to rebuilt it as a feature film set and now an exhibition. 

article-imageThe Fly Room in the 1920s (via Columbia University)

The Fly Room is currently open to the public at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, and you can examine the desks littered with beakers and test tubes and walls pinned with drawings of fruit fly anatomy. It was in the original lab that modern genetics is rooted, where the role of chromosomes in heredity eventually earned Thomas Hunt Morgan the 1933 Nobel Prize. 

During the installation’s run through the end of August there will be weekly talks with scientists on topics such as music and the brain, neural patterns in color vision, and biological clocks. Here’s the complete schedule on Imagine Science Films. 

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The Fly Room is explorable at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn through August 20.