Public Outreach Spotlight: New York's Science History

January 28, 2020
Image of bridge over water

The Center for Science and Society is proud to support public outreach projects developed by students and faculty at Columbia to reach new communities outside the University. Two such efforts focus on science history in New York City: Metropolis of Science, a website and smartphone application developed by Professor Marguerite Holloway and students in Columbia’s Science Journalism MA program (2015-2017), and Confluence: The History of North American Rivers, an online mapping project supported by a 2019 Public Outreach Grant and organized by graduate student Scot McFarlane.

Both projects reveal the rich scientific history of New York by documenting areas of scientific importance in neighborhoods around the city and along the Harlem River. Their user-friendly platforms give audiences a taste of the past, and encourage real-world exploration of the sites to learn more. Fitting this adventure in the span of a day, our work-study student Ariana Novo traveled to ten spots featured either in the Harlem River map or Metropolis of Science application.

black and white images of people.

Beginning right outside the Center for Science and Society office, Ariana visited Columbia’s Schermerhorn Hall. In 1933, scientist Thomas Hunt Morgan received a Nobel Prize for seminal genetics research discovered by breeding fruit flies. The principles he and his students discovered—like the fact that genes located close to each other on chromosomes are likely to be inherited together—are still important today. With a bit of sleuthing, Ariana narrowed down the search for the famous “Fly Room” to a couple of laboratories. Despite  visiting each possible location, there was no historical replication or memorabilia to be found.

Next, Ariana hopped on the subway to 190th Street Station on the A train. At the far end of the platform, more than 100 feet below the surface and surrounded by thick bedrock, is where Nobel Prize winner Victor Hess conducted a number of experiments in the summer of 1947 examining the naturally-occurring radiation in granite.

Image of bridge over water, with marsh in foreground and buildings in background.

Walking further north, near the Hudson River confluence of the Harlem River, Ariana saw the vast tulip trees in Inwood Hill Park. Native Americans living in this area centuries before the first European settlers used these trees to build canoes that could hold up to forty people. Near Columbia’s Baker Athletics Complex towards the northern tip of Manhattan, one can still watch New York residents fishing in the Harlem River, a scene that may have appeared quite similar hundreds of years ago. Because of pollution and potential contamination from industrial runoff from the Hudson River, people are warned against consuming their catch. Plenty of litter could be seen surrounding the river, a problem being tackled that day by a group of volunteers braving the cold weather from the local non-profit Wasteless. They were happy to talk to Ariana about their work to clean up local parks and wild areas and educate people on sustainable practices. More information can be found on their website and Facebook page.

High Bridge in New York City over the Harlem River

A quick subway ride later, Ariana arrived at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. More than eighty years ago, surgeon Charles R. Drew developed a method of storing blood for an entire year, an extraordinary discovery when the current storage time was just a few days. He then helped to prototype a large-scale blood bank first used for soldiers during World War II.

Ariana then visited the High Bridge, a 140-foot tall pinnacle of modern architecture, built in 1837 as part of the Croton aqueduct to bring clean water to the residents of New York City. Now the oldest bridge still in use in the City, it is occupied by pedestrians and bicyclists and connects the boroughs of Manhattan and the Bronx.

Next stop on the science history tour was the Trinity Church Cemetery and Mausoleum at 153rd Street. As the City’s only active cemetery, it was established in 1842 after an immigrant boom inadvertently led to an increase in poverty and death, forcing Trinity Church on Wall Street to expand into Washington Heights to accommodate the growing number of burials. It was easy to spot the older gravestones in the cemetery due to the obvious age of their markings, but the modern mausoleum was built in 1980 and still accepts remains for cremation and crypt interments.

Image of Harlem Hospital

The Harlem Hospital, now renamed NYC Health + Hospitals/Harlem, played a large role in the Civil Rights Movement as a teaching hospital for health care workers of color including employing the first African-American physician in any New York City hospital. The distinctive murals found in the hospital depict how black people have shaped history in various fields. First commissioned by the Works Progress Administration in 1936, the murals were restored eight years ago as part of the hospital’s Modernization Project. This project also included the restoration of the Martin Luther King, Jr Pavilion.  The civil rights leader had been treated at this facility after being stabbed in the chest in 1958. It’s said that the wound was so close to his aorta that if he had sneezed, he could have died.

Across the Harlem River, near 138th Street, is the ghost of Mott Haven Canal used for industry in the late 1800s. Today, all that remains is the name, Canal Street, as the actual waterway was declared a public nuisance by the Board of Health in 1896 as the standing water produced a pungent odor. The quietude and eeriness of this street concords with the loss of a major part of the Harlem River’s history.

On her way back to Columbia, Ariana walked across the Third Avenue Bridge. It was the second bridge to be built across the Harlem River in the 1860s. Ironically, its construction reduced the importance of the river, as residents began taking river crossings for granted as it became easier to traverse. These days, more than 50,000 automobiles cross the Third Avenue Bridge each day.

From medical achievements to governmental regulations to industrial histories, New York City should be taken advantage of by its residents not only as their home but their gateway to the past. To begin, take your own tour using the Metropolis of Science website, the Harlem River mapping project, or join the waitlist for The Disconnected River: The Past, Present, and Future of the Harlem River on April 18th, a 1.5 mile walk spanning parts of the Harlem River

Image of water