Irving Geis [1908-1997]: Of Molecules and Maps

The South Carolina backstory of one of the 20th Century’s greatest scientific illustrators, Irving Geis, unbeknown to many, an accomplished comic mapmaker who produced a series of entertaining “hysterical” maps of the State during the early 1930s….

When the renowned scientific illustrator, Irving Geis, died in New York in July 1997, friends and obituarists mourned the passing of a uniquely gifted artist. Colleague Richard Dickerson called him the “Leonardo da Vinci of protein structure”, a man who through his innovative scientific paintings of the macromolecular structure of such items as the DNA double-helix and haemoglobin proteins, had simultaneously excited & enlightened a postwar generation of scientific students & researchers. And some might say, through his longevity as illustrator for the immensely popular magazine, Scientific American, Geis had perhaps done more than any other American in this period to bring the visual wonders of science out of the closeted world of the science lab and into the living rooms of everyday Americans. Dickerson also credited Geis’s depictions of macromolecular structures with “setting standards that, consciously or unconsciously, have influenced the design of computer programs that are ubiquitous today.”

November 1966 Cover of Scientific American Magazine
featuring Irving Geis’ illustration of the Lysozyme Molecule
(Author’s Collection)

Yet few perhaps realize that the foundations of Geis’s success as a scientific illustrator lay in his early student years and in particular his foundation degree in Architecture and Fine Art. It is a personal backstory that is largely unknown and features almost as a minor prequel & footnote to his subsequent stellar career in scientific illustration. However by the early 1930s Geis was a highly qualified & extremely talented draughtsman, artist and cartoonist whose student work was described as “the highest rank of art”.

His anticipated career as a professional architect had unfortunately been cut short by the calamity of the 1929 Wall Street Crash & by his early recognition that there would be few opportunities for young & inexperienced architects in the ensuing years of the Great Depression.

This highly formative & influential early period of Geis’s life deserves wider attention. In particular, the wonderful series of three “Hysterical” Maps of South Carolina, 1932-1934, which in fact brought him considerable fame & notoriety in both Columbia & wider South Carolina at the time.

Hysterical Map of South Carolina
Endpapers – Garnet & Black [1932]
(Author’s Collection)

Irving Geis was in fact born Irving Geisberg in the Bronx, New York, in October 1908. He was the eldest son of Leopold Geisberg [1873-1946] and Edith Jacobs [1883-1941]. Leopold’s father Oscar had emigrated from Vienna shortly after the end of the American Civil War and subsequently settled in Anderson, South Carolina.

Anderson South Carolina had two particular claims to fame. After the establishment of the Rocky River hydroelectric plant in 1895, it became one of the first settlements in the Southeastern US to have electricity, earning it the nickname “Electric City”.

Geisberg’s personal homage to his home town, Anderson, SC known as “Electric City”
(Detail from his 1934 Hysterical Map of South Carolina)
Note the “Great White Way”, Anderson’s Main Street, proudly lit with electric street lamps. Note also the “Damyankee” Tourist crossing the Savannah River into the State from neighbouring Georgia. Geisberg, a native New Yorker himself, employs the term with a degree of personal irony & tongue-in-cheek humour.

Within just a few years, Anderson could boast electric streetcars, public street lamps, and the world’s first ever electric cotton gin!

Following Leopold & Edith’s marriage in New York in June 1907 and Irving’s birth the following October, the family returned to Anderson in about 1911 where Leopold is recorded as a shoe store proprietor in the 1920 Federal Census. Leopold had extended family in the Anderson area. An elder sister Dora ran the local ladies’ clothes store. He also had three younger brothers – Adolphus, Max & Harry – some or all of whom were clearly partners in his shoe business – Geisberg Bros. Shoe Co (“Shoes that Satisfy“) – first established in September 1911 and located beneath the Masonic Temple in central Anderson.

Early Advertisement for Geisberg Bros. Shoe Co, Anderson, SC

Soon Irving also had two younger siblings, Flora (b.1913) & Ralph (b.1916).

The Town Square, Anderson, South Carolina, 1924
(Courtesy of Anderson Memories)

Anderson has also long been known as the “Friendliest City in South Carolina”, in recognition of its warm hospitality & close-knit sense of community. That local support network was doubtless something the Geisberg family felt keenly, not least after Leopold Geisberg’s home was entirely destroyed by fire in 1914, as the young six year old Irv played innocently outside.

After graduation from the local High School, Irving, or Irv as he was more often know, went on to study Architecture, first at Georgia Tech [1925-27] then at UPenn [1927-9], where he majored in Architecture & Fine Art. The calamitious fallout of the Wall Street Crash led to a hastly reappraisal of his future career.

Between 1932 & 1934 he undertook further studies in the Department of Fine Arts & Design at the University of South Carolina, before finally embarking on a career as a commercial artist in 1934.

The tree-lined campus of University of South Carolina, Columbia,
adjacent to the Old President’s Home

Garnet & Black [1932]
(Author’s collection)

Geisberg’s time at the University of South Carolina proved to be a highly creative & fruitful period. He threw himself into artistic life on campus, becoming Art Editor of both the 1932 & 1933 editions of the University Yearbook, Garnet & Black, and one of its principal designers & contributors. In the 1933-34 academic year he also worked as Art Editor for the University’s literary magazine, the Carolinian.

Irving Geisberg
Art Editor

Garnet & Black [1932]

The 1932 edition of Garnet & Black reveals Geisberg’s burgeoning & wide-ranging talents as book designer, artist & cartoonist.

Art Theme – Irving Geisberg
Garnet & Black [1932 ]
(Author’s collection)

The book itself is divided into six sections, each introduced with a small vignette and description of a particular part of the State, followed by a vibrantly coloured woodblock title-page design by Geisberg. These reveal Geisberg’s evident love and appreciation of the history, culture, landscapes & natural beauty of his home State.

Vignette & description
of Columbia, SC
Irving Geisberg
Garnet & Black [1932]
Administration (Columbia)
Titlepage Design by Irving Geisberg
Garnet & Black [1932]
(Author’s Collection)

For the section on Classes, Geisberg provides an equally striking illustration of the popular coastal resort of Myrtle Beach:

Classes (Myrtle Beach)
Titlepage Design by Irving Geisberg
Garnet & Black [1932]
(Author’s Collection)

The other four titlepages are equally fine:

Irving also displayed immense talent as a cartoonist aswell:

A Selection of Geisberg’s cartoons
Garnet & Black [1932]

But the highpoint of Geisberg’s artistic creativity is undoubtedly the first of his Hysterical Maps of South Carolina, which embellishes the endpapers of the 1932 edition of Garnet & Black:

Many of the details would be closely replicated on the subsequent versions of the map, though there are some interesting pictorial sketches & features that appear exclusive to this edition.

Prohibition was still in force – it would only be abolished the following year (1933) – so the 12-mile coastal limit is still clearly demarcated by a bobbing line of bottles of bootleg liquor. Geisberg also includes a reference to the Arcadia Plantation, near Georgetown, purchased in 1906 by the South Carolinian-born Bromo-Seltzer headache pill magnate, Isaac Edward Emerson, who had in fact just died the previous year [1931]. An adjacent illustration is that of the Hobcaw Barony, a neighbouring estate owned by millionaire financier, Barnard Baruch [1870-1965].

Baruch had become close friends with Winston Churchill during the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 when both were junior representatives of the respective British & American delegations that negotiated the final Versailles Treaty. Following a visit to New York in December 1931 when Churchill was almost run over crossing Fifth Avenue, it was here that Baruch invited the bruised & shaken Winston to come & stay, accompanied by his eldest daughter Diana, in January 1932, in order to quietly recuperate from his injuries.

Also specially featured is one of Geisberg’s student peers at USC during this period, an outspoken young lawyer who was clearly already making waves: John Bolt Culbertson.

Geisberg’s homage to USC peer & contemporary, lawyer & activist, John Bolt Culbertson [1908-1983].
He stands on a campaigning soap box precariously balanced on a raft close to the 12 mile limit off the South Carolina coast!

The 1932 edition of Garnet & Black records Culbertson as Chairman of the Board of Publications & Social Cabinet and President of the Blue Key Fraternity. Following graduation from the USC’s Law School in 1934, he went on to found an Upstate legal practice in Greenville, becoming an outspoken liberal advocate, activist & attorney, whose political leanings, atypical for the region at the time, led him to regularly represent Unions, the working class, war veterans, African-Americans, and disenfranchised defendants without a voice or indeed, more usually than not, money to pay him. He ran for Congress twice and for the Senate five times during the 1960s & 1970s. Interestingly over forty years after the above illustration, Culbertson did actually run for the Governorship of South Carolina, in 1974! Unfortunately none of these many campaigns ended in political success.

According to an article in the University’s Gamecock magazine, a second version of Geisberg’s Hysterical map followed, which was exhibited at the USC’s annual Fine Art Exhibition in the summer of 1933. Its current whereabouts are sadly unknown.

In early 1934 he completed his final version of the map, which is undoubtedly the best-known. It replicates many of the same design features & pictorial sketches of the previous two but includes a few new revisions.

Amongst fresh literary & filmic references are Jane Peterkin’s controversial 1928 Pullitzer Prize-winning novel, Scarlet Sister Mary, focusing on the life of a young orphaned African-American Gullah girl; and the recently issued pre-Code Hollywood film, Carolina [1934], starring Janet Gaynor (depicted lounging in swimsuit on Myrtle Beach) and five-year old child prodigy, Shirley Temple, whose scenes were largely excised from the final screen version of the film and so also omitted from the final credits.

Geisberg’s map evidently caused something of a stir within the state, to the extent that he was granted the unprecedented honour of presenting a personalized copy of this “ingenious and clever map” to the full General Assembly of the House of Representatives in Columbia on February 28th 1934. Perhaps all the more curious given the less than flattering fashion in which Geisberg actually portrays Columbia’s politicians & legislators on the map itself:

The General Assembly of the House of Representatives in Columbia
Note: Politician 1. at rest. 2. at work !
Detail from Geisberg’s An Hysterical Map of South Carolina [1934]

After completing his studies at USC, Geisberg gained employment as a commercial artist in Columbia, seemingly working for the Carolina Engraving Company, publishers of the University Yearbook, Garnet & Black. Interestingly it would be Eugen H Salmon [1899-1969], the owner of the Carolina Engraving Company, who would later republish Geisberg’s 1934 Hysterical map with a fresh copyright. It would be republished twice more through to the 1970s, ensuring an extended longevity.

By 1934 Geisberg had moved to New York as a freelance artist. He quickly found employment as illustrator for Fortune magazine and married Miriam Artman in December 1936. It was also around the time that he appears to have changed his surname from Geisberg to Geis.

A November 1937 Illustration of the Circulatory System
for Fortune Magazine, signed Geis
(Author’s collection)

Then came the war and, between 1941 & 1943, an entirely new role as Art Director and chief of the Graphics section of the OSS (The Office of Stategic Studies), the forerunner of the CIA. From 1944 he also worked as Director of the domestic branch of the Office of War Information.

And in 1948 began his long association as illustrator for the recently revamped magazine, Scientific American. His career took a new and unexpected turn, one in which he quickly gained an international reputation for his truly startling & innovative macromolecular art.

So we reflect on this unique artist, a native New Yorker, whose later life was largely spent in that City, but whose family background, upbringing and artistic training were inextricably rooted in the State of South Carolina.

It is little surprise then that South Carolina should feature so prominently in his early life & art – and especially in these three wonderful Hysterical maps that he designed between 1932 & 1934. South Carolina provided the creative crucible & formative building blocks for so much of Irving Geis’s later success & popularity, in mapping & demystifying the biomolecular wonders of modern Science.

Refs: Irving Geis – Obituary New York Times 1997

worldcat: An Hysterical Map of South Carolina [1934]

Garnet & Black [1932 & 1933]