Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Will Burtin's Incredible Six-Foot Cell

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.

cellular spectacular!

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!


Major Pepperidge said...

Wow wow wow, AMAZING post, Kevin! I've always loved stuff like this, the kind of thing you might see in a nice museum (like Chicago's Field Museum or the Museum of Science and Industry). Thank you for all of this great info, I may just have to get a copy of that book.

thepicklebarrel said...

nice! and informative!

i wonder where that cell model is now?

i think you guys should do a one to one replica for the next D-23!

and kevin, make sure to do a silhouette photo recreation of "the cell" booklet with you in similar pose!

Kevin Kidney said...

Major - Thanks! I am so with you. If you get the book, I think you'll like it.

Pickle - You mean the cell isn't squirreled away at your house?? I'm shocked!
I'd love to do a full-scale replica, if not for Disney, then for myself. It's so pretty and I can imagine the lighting was mesmerizing. The ultimate mood lamp!
And it goes without saying that I'd recreate that photo! Do I have to wear a dress?

Chris Merritt said...

Amazing - I had no idea about the history on this. I too am surprised Jordan doesn't have it stashed in one of his back rooms...

Greg Allen said...


I bought some big, vintage dye transfer prints of the walk-in cell on eBay way back in the day, gave them to a photographer friend for Christmas.

Never did figure out who or what it was, but the sheer oddball beauty was enough at the time. thanks for finally closing the loop.

Matterhorn1959 said...

Fantastic and historical post. I wonder not only where the Disneyland cell ended up, but where the large walk through cell model ended up. You certainly know how to bring some fantastic items and obscure pieces of the park to light. Thanks!

Unknown said...

Well, I'm stunned! I co-wrote the book about Will Burtin that Kevin is recounting in this blog, and I have spent time in the Will Burtin archive at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where my co-author Roger Remington is professor of design. But although I have seen several formats based on this photo of the six foot cell by Ezra Stoller, I never saw it in color or designed as a postcard.

On the other hand, the girl in the shot is familiar. Carol Burtin Fripp and I have been married a long time.

A couple of blogs ask where the cell is now. Like Will Burtin's "Brain" model it spent a few years on the road, and went to London for live BBC broadcasts. Meanwhile, the Brain (1960) went off to Turin (1961) with Carol Burtin as an official guide. Another photo in our book shows her there with Adlai Stevenson and the head of Fiat, Gianni Agnelli. Both models, with other Burtin work, went to a museum in Chicago before ending their days in Cleveland at the Museum of Health, which gave them a gallery. There they died: curators struggled to keep the big cell together, but the Plexiglas (tm) was almost as experimental as Burtin's use of plastics and his models, and the cell's 2,000 plastic components eventually turned to dust. There's hope though. The Wellcome Trust medical charity in London is making noises about building a modern version of the cell.

Readers can find much more about Burtin, including great reviews, on my URL: . Thank you for the blog, Kevin. / Robert Fripp