Science illustrator Irving Geis shed light on an unseen world
The atrium of the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience was swarmed by hundreds of guests on Saturday, October 18, for the BUZZ on Biotechnology, an annual outreach event geared toward teenaged students, an interactive open house to inspire future scientists, and maybe generate a little interest in attending the Georgia Institute of Technology.
The kids took part in a bunch of hands-on experiments, many of which are designed to teach something about biology at the molecular level. They went from demonstration table to demonstration table, building edible cells out of candy or extracting DNA from peas, unaware that all around them, hanging on the atrium walls, are some of the most influential images ever made of molecular biology. This is the art of Irving Geis, whose 116th birthday also happened to be October 18, a former Georgia Tech student who did more for myoglobin’s street cred than anyone before him.
Geis, who died in 1997, was a pioneer whose seminal, oft-reproduced painting of a sperm whale myoglobin molecule for Scientific American in 1961 basically launched the field of molecular illustration, an artist whose complex and colorful depictions of an unseen living world have helped inspire and enlighten generations of students and scientists.
“We all knew about Irving Geis,” says Sheldon May, a biochemistry professor who helped start the Petit Institute and led the effort to bring Geis’s work to the atrium shortly after the building opened 15 years ago. “Anyone who taught biochemistry used his illustrations. He was an amazing artist, strongly influenced by Da Vinci, and he did it all in a time before computer graphics.”
Geis, born in New York City in 1908, moved to Anderson, South Carolina, as a kid. He thought he wanted to be an architect, so he attended Georgia Tech from 1925 to 1927 with that in mind. He didn’t graduate from Tech, but his experience in Atlanta obviously left an impression, according to his daughter.
“My father couldn’t carry a tune and almost never sang, but he taught me the song, I’m a Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech, when I was six years old,” says Sandy Geis. “It was my favorite thing to sing. Can you imagine? A six-year-old kid singing, ‘a hell of an engineer’ at the top of her lungs.”
Geis may have enjoyed his time at Tech, but he just wasn’t bound to be an architect, and went on to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania (1929) and after earning a degree in design and painting from the University of South Carolina in 1933 he moved back to New York to work as a freelance illustrator. He did a lot of work for Fortune magazine, including a drawing of the circulatory system that marked his venture into scientific illustration. “He was very proud of that. It really jumpstarted his interest in biology,” Sandy Geis says.
During World War II, Geis worked as chief of the graphics section of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, the predecessor of the CIA) and later as art director for the Office of War Information. Following the war and for the rest of his life he worked as a freelance artist, and from 1948 on he shaped the genre of scientific illustration. That was the year he started contributing to Scientific American, where he produced some of the most iconic images of scientific illustration, the most famous in 1961.
“The myoglobin painting was a landmark in his career, and in science. It was really the first illustration of the molecular world,” says Sandy Geis, whose father typically spent a few weeks on a project – learning the subject, talking with the scientist writing the article, and producing an illustration. But the myoglobin watercolor painting took six months, because it takes a while to break new ground.
“There was always a back and forth dialogue with the authors, the scientists,” Sandy Geis says. “Between his photographs, and sketches, and the constant dialogue, he was able to elucidate whatever they said. It was a complicated process, and my father was such a perfectionist.”
The myoglobin illustration accompanied the article by British biochemist John Kendrew, who described the structure of myoglobin, a protein found in muscle tissue, and recruited Geis to convert his physical models of myoglobin into a painting. It became the first molecule that most people ever actually saw.
“He was the preeminent molecular illustrator,” says May. “He used art to beautifully demonstrate the structure and function of molecules.”
The myoglobin painting increased demand in Geis’s talents. From 1963 until his death he illustrated a number of major books on biochemistry and molecular biology, including three that he co-authored with Richard Dickerson, the UCLA biochemistry professor, who had worked with Kendrew on solving the first high-resolution x-ray crystal structure of myoglobin in 1958.
“It was never clear whether Irv illustrated my books, or I wrote Irv’s captions,” Dickerson wrote in the journal Protein Science in 1997, following Geis’s death. “In the end, it didn’t matter; together we could do more than either could have done alone.”
According to Dickerson, his co-author’s genius wasn’t in depicting a protein exactly how it looked, but drawing it in a such a way that showed how the molecule worked, an artistic process that Geis called, ‘selective lying.’ Geis, wrote Dickerson, “was very taken with the importance of using art to put across scientific concepts.”
Geis also illustrated several biochemistry textbooks that Georgia Tech scientists like May and Loren Williams became familiar with.
“I’d loved his work for years, but at first, I didn’t know he went to Georgia Tech, until I found a copy of his obituary,” says Williams, a biochemist who discussed with May the idea of bringing Geis’s work to the Petit Institute building, which opened in 1999.
May reached out to Sandy Geis, “called her out of the blue,” he says. "She was very happy that we were doing something to perpetuate her father’s contribution to science.”
Sandy Geis made her father's original art available, and what hangs on the atrium walls are actually photographic reproductions, commissioned by May before the Geis Archives were purchased by the Howard Hughes Medical institute.
“I’m glad that his work is displayed at Georgia Tech,” she says. “Because his passion was to teach, really, to influence as many scientists and students of science through the generations. And that’s what he did. Two Nobel Prize winners told me personally that the books by Dickerson and Geis were a big influence for them.”
Shortly after Georgia Tech acquired the reproductions in 2000, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute purchased the Geis Archives, which includes art as well as correspondence and private journals. But the reproductions in the atrium have helped give the Petit building a sense of colorful equilibrium, offsetting the massive Cell Wall, the nine-piece, 12 foot by 24 foot painting by artist Karen Stoutsenberger Ku (typically is one of the first things anyone notices when they enter the Petit Institute atrium).
“When we moved into the building, the Cell Wall was all there,” May says. “But we, the biochemists, were thinking, ‘what can we do from an artistic point of view?’ The engineers at the time were all cellular oriented, and we were very molecular oriented. We wondered what we could do from a visual point of view to play up the fact that this institute brings together the molecular and the cellular, the science and the engineering. And we remembered those illustrations from the Biochemistry textbook. Of course! Irving Geis!”
In his lifetime, Geis evolved to the point where, especially in his later years, he was an occasional scientific lecturer. It was easy for the casual student of the visual arts to confuse him as some kind of molecular scientist.
“My father understood the science, and he understood scientists,” Sandy Geis says. “He could speak their language – he was an interpreter of their language. But first and foremost, he was always an artist.”