Calvin Blackman Bridges Unconventional Geneticist (1889-1938)

About Calvin Bridges

Calvin at Caltech early 1930s.
Courtesy of Betsey Bridges Collection

Creative scientist, artist of genetics, social adventurer, Calvin Bridges’ life was multifaceted and unorthodox. He made major contributions to the revamped field of genetics that had been energized by the rediscovery of Mendel’s work, essentially built the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model organism, and systematized the genetics of Drosophila, creating genetic and physical maps of the fly chromosomes that foreshadowed FlyBase, the field of development, and modern genome projects. He was an inventor, designing much of the equipment used to study Drosophila as well as building a streamlined car, the Lightning Bug, and explored information science with his creation of a four-sided “totem” to track the genes and mutants of Drosophila. And his private life was considered somewhat unorthodox — he challenged social mores of the times, supported the nascent birth control movement, and was interested politically in the Bolshevik Revolution as well as the Spanish Civil War. He visited the U.S.S.R. in October of 1931 through May 1932 to lecture and then in the autumn of 1933 at the Institute of Genetics

→ Calvin in the Fly Room, Columbia University, 1927.
Sturtevant noted that Bridges had “the best eye for new [Drosophila] types” as well as the skill and patience in the
“buildup of useful combinations of mutant genes.”

Courtesy of Betsey Bridges Collection

in Leningrad. Bridges hobnobbed with artists of the day, including novelist Theodore Dreiser, taking part in the founding of the short-lived literary magazine The American Spectator. His entire professional career was in Thomas Hunt Morgan’s lab, first at Columbia University and then at California Institute of Technology, and as a Fellow of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, under whose auspices he spent summers at Cold Spring Harbor in the 1930s.

Who was this unusual person?

H.J. Muller in his Nature obituary of Bridges said he was “one who approached the wider problems of life in a spirit as rationalistic and as unfettered by traditional dogma… he preserved his early freshness of attitude, boyish enthusiasm, sunniness of character, and friendliness.”

To Morgan, Bridges was “…simple and unaffected and always helpful to any one who came to him for advice.”

Milislav Demerec told Morgan that Bridges was “a scientist and an inventor, a biologist by profession and an engineer by predilection” and that he was “a brilliant worker.”

Theodosius Dobzhansky described him as “Gottenfunken, a person who has in him a spark
of God.”

In Bridges’ own words, he was an idealist — he believed that because the laws of heredity also held for “mankind is it not a hopeful prospect that we can take our destiny into our own hands and mould our natures to our best ideals.”

This online exhibit is an introduction to the life and scientific contributions of Calvin Bridges. New family photos and information have been made available by the Bridges family.

Judith Cuddihy is an editor at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press and is the recipient of the 2011 Sydney Brenner Research Scholarship

Dr. Alexis Gambis is Founder and Artistic Director of the nonprofit Imagine Science Films and the writer and director of the upcoming feature film The Fly Room.

©2013 Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Library and Archives