Calvin Blackman Bridges Unconventional Geneticist (1889-1938)

family life

Calvin Bridges was born in Schuyler Falls in rural upstate New York, near Plattsburgh, New York, January 11, 1889. Life with his young parents was short-lived – his mother Amelia died when he was 2 and his father Leonard died the following year, so the orphaned Calvin was raised by his paternal grandmother Anne Eliza Bridges on her Orchard View farm in Salmon River. A staunch Methodist, Grandmother Bridges thought that “anything pleasurable was a sin” and that anyone “who went beyond the small schoolhouse was going to become a Methodist minister.”

Thus it was no surprise that Calvin’s childhood was spent largely on the farm; attendance at the one-room schoolhouse down the road from the farm was sporadic, depending on his Grandmother’s wishes and work on the farm. But his teacher supplied him with books and, recognizing his intelligence, encouraged him to go to Plattsburgh High School.

Sheldon Reed in a 1974 interview with Elof Carlson said that Bridges did not attend school regularly until he was 14 years old and did not come to his high school dances because of his ragged clothes. As a result of this delayed formal schooling, Calvin did not graduate high school until he was 20 years old. The Plattsburgh Daily Press reported in a 1932 article about Calvin that “While attending school he worked at the Plattsburgh Press office.”

In a 1937 speech honoring his Plattsburgh High School teachers, Calvin noted that “For my part, I may report that the start I got at P.H.S. in science has led me into a life long study of heredity.” He won two scholarships “one to Cornell and one to Columbia” but chose Columbia to be near his Auntie Harriet Elizabeth Billings, who lived in River Edge, New Jersey.

Calvin moved to New York City in 1909 to start at Columbia. He was still an undergraduate when he met Gertrude Ives, a schoolteacher, who was renting a room from his Auntie Billings and taught the first and second grades in the school across the street from the house. Calvin and Gertrude married on September 7th, 1912, and set up housekeeping in New York City at 528 West 123rd Street.

Gertrude took in graduate students as boarders, including Alfred Sturtevant, to generate more income, much needed because Calvin was earning just $60 a month from a fellowship. Their first child, Philip, was born in 1915. The next year the young couple bought a house in Leonia, New Jersey, and Calvin commuted by streetcar and then ferry across the Hudson River to Columbia. Betsey was born in 1918, and Auntie Billings moved in with the Bridges that year to help Gertrude. Another son Norman, had been born after Philip but died as a young child, the result of a household fire accident; son Nathan was born in 1921.

The family often spent summers on the farm in Schuyler Falls as well as at Isle La Motte on Lake Champlain. There was also travel to the scientific encampment at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, to California, to Cold Spring Harbor, and elsewhere. “Calvin was intensely focused on his scientific work” his daughter Betsey remembers “He used to come home with flies in his socks. He somehow couldn’t detach himself.”

The Morgan Lab spent a sabbatical year in 1920 working at Stanford University and then at Berkeley the next summer in 1921. Soon after that summer, the Bridges marriage began to break down, with Calvin’s free-form lifestyle resulting in estrangement from Gertrude. When Morgan moved to Caltech, Calvin moved with him, but left his family behind in New Jersey. Although effectively separated from them, he continued to support his family financially and visited often in Leonia.

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