If, like me, you're enthralled with mid-century science and classic Disneyland, no doubt you've come across this odd 1950s Upjohn postcard for the Basic Cell display at the pharmacy on Main Street. Hardly anything has ever been written about this curious exhibit, so I think it's time to change that right now.
Head Cellsman, Will Burtin
German-born designer Will Burtin was a graphic designer for Fortune magazine and the Upjohn Company, specializing in "scientific visualization." He had designed Upjohn's entire product line of medicine bottles, ointment tubes and packaging - and even the company letterhead. In 1957, Burtin convinced Upjohn's president Jack Gauntlett and Dr. Garrard Macleod, director of special projects, to fund the construction of a large-scale scientific model, a human red blood cell 24 feet across and 12 feet high. It was so big, folks could enter and walk around inside...on carpet!
Built of plastic tubing, wires and colored lights, the soon-to-be-famous model would be a tactile representation of a virtual human cell. Not an actual representation of a cell, since too much was still unknown about cells, but a "giant, physical manifestation of a designer's vision" of how a cell functions.
The walk-thru model, one million times larger than life, was unveiled in September 1958 at the American Medical Association's meeting in San Francisco. It was a sensation, and would eventually pave the way for Burtin to create four more fantastic scientific models for Upjohn during his career.
The full-sized Cell was an instant smash hit with scientists and non-scientists alike, but it was too huge to be easily moved, so Burtin designed a smaller version. The new Mark II model was 6-feet tall and made its debut at a special reception in the foyer of the Los Angeles County General Hospital on August 12, 1959. Like its larger predecessor, the new Cell was a marvel, described in a full page article in the Illustrated London News as "a glowing and mysterious hemisphere."
The Cell comes to Disneyland (1958)
For the opening of Disneyland in 1955, Burtin had designed the interior for the Upjohn Pharmacy on Main Street U.S.A. Burtin and his wife Hilda had spent months collecting antique medical paraphernalia, period glassware, patent medicine powders, weigh-scales, and pharmacological books to furnish Walt Disney's turn-of-the-century drugstore. Now Burtin's 6-foot "Basic Cell" would be added to the exhibit in a small room adjacent to the Pharmacy (today's jewelry counter in the rear of the Fortuosity Shoppe.)
Carol Burtin and the Cell (1958)
It's estimated that two million people saw Will Burtin's Six-Foot Human Cell during its brief stay at Disneyland. Certainly Upjohn must've felt they got their money's worth of publicity value, as visitors left the exhibit with pieces of Upjohn literature, including a color souvenir postcard of the model with Burtin's teenaged daughter Carol, by photographer Ezra Stoller.
Will Burtin (right) with Dr. A. Gerrard Macleod in the Cell exhibit
From Disneyland, the cell traveled to the San Francisco Academy of Sciences, and pictures of it appeared in magazines, text books and science films throughout the 1960s and into the 70s. Will Burtin believed that designers had a responsibility in the age of science to attempt to make complex scientific problems easier to understand. In Burtin's mind the role of designer and teacher were interchangeable, and he hoped to inspire through his craft.
If you found this interesting, there is a wonderful new book available on Will Burtin's design work and his beautiful scientific models.
Design and Science, The Life and Work of Will Burtin
by R. Remington and R. Fripp is available from Amazon. Order your copy here now!