Alessandro Fabbri, the Rockefeller Institute & the Immortal Chicken Heart

By Margaret A. Brucia

A young Alessandro Fabbri (date unknown)

A young Alessandro Fabbri (date unknown)

On April 27, 1921, Julia Gardiner Gayley composed a letter to her daughter. With a mixture of excitement and astonishment, and while the details were still fresh in her mind, she described her evening at the Fabbri mansion the night before — from the moment she was “taken in to dinner” on the arm of the former ambassador to Germany to the after-dinner entertainment presented in the library of the Fabbris’ lavish renaissance-inspired palazzo at 7 East 95th Street.[1] By 3:30 in the afternoon Julie’s letter was postmarked and on its way to Italy.

This is the latest in a series of posts based on the letters of the New York socialite, Julia Gardiner Gayley (1864-1937), to her eldest daughter, Mary Gayley Senni (1884-1971), a countess who lived on the outskirts of Rome. In 2010, the author purchased a trove of the letters in a Roman flea market. This mother-daughter correspondence spanned the years 1902-1936 and provides an intimate and unfiltered view of life in New York during the early twentieth century. You can find the earlier posts on our homepage.

The Fabbri family of New York was a strange ménage of three brothers of Italian descent, only one of whom was married. Ernesto, the middle brother, an investment banker, was the husband of the former Edith Shepard, a granddaughter of William H. Vanderbilt. Egisto, eight years older than Ernesto, was a serious art collector and an amateur architect who designed the house on 95th Street in concert with the celebrated New York architect Grosvenor Atterbury. The third brother, Alessandro (known as “Sandro”), a naturalist, photographer and pioneer in the development of radio wave transmission, was three years younger than Ernesto. Edith, her husband, her two brothers-in-law and eleven servants occupied the Fabbri mansion, completed five years earlier.

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Julie, married barely eight months to her second husband, Gano Dunn, an eminent engineer, arrived at the dinner party alone. Gano was in Washington D.C. Because of his status as a member of the National Academy of Sciences and because of his fluency in German, Gano had been invited to serve as both interpreter and guide to Albert Einstein, who had arrived with much fanfare in America just three weeks earlier, on April 3. The scientific community and the administration of the newly installed President Warren G. Harding, in awe of Einstein, had planned a daunting itinerary of events to honor him.

In Gano’s absence, Julie was paired for the evening with James (“Jimmy”) Gerard. They made an odd couple, she a staunch and outspoken Republican who loathed President Wilson and he a prominent Democrat who had served as ambassador to Germany under Wilson from 1913 until his recall on the eve of America’s entry into the war in 1917. Not yet ready to abandon his political career altogether, Jimmy made a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination just six months earlier. Unsuccessful, he was now back in his native New York practicing law.

Together Julie and Jimmy entered the Fabbris’ spacious dining room, where as many as eighty guests could sit comfortably under the vaulted ceiling.[2] The highpoint of the evening for Julie, however, was not the meal or its presentation, but the sequel to dinner in the second floor library. That room, the mansion’s cynosure, measuring 28 by 50 feet with a 23-foot-high ceiling, was designed to accommodate a spectacular early-17th-century ensemble of carved walnut bookcases and paneling spoliated from the summer palace of the last duke of Urbino and purchased by the Fabbris.[3] These masterworks, transported from Italy during the war years through U-boat riddled seas, arrived safely in New York and were installed in time for the debut party of Edith and Ernesto’s daughter Teresa in January 1917. Though the bookcases along the periphery of the library were an antiquarian’s delight, the room also featured cutting-edge technology. On the back wall stood an Aeolian organ with an automatic, self-playing feature and above it, in the gallery, was a built-in projection booth equipped with a Simplex 35mm projector.[4] Although the Fabbris often entertained their guests with popular silent films accompanied by organ music, that night Julie and her fellow diners were treated to something very different indeed.

Rockefeller Institute entrance

Rockefeller Institute entrance

Sandro Fabbri, a leader in the field of “micro-cinema photography” was affiliated with the Rockefeller Institute on York Avenue at 66th Street (today known as the Rockefeller University).[5] In 1901 tragedy struck the family of John D. Rockefeller Sr. when his two-year-old grandson died of scarlet fever, a deadly bacterial illness common in children, but for which there was no cure. Inspired by recent advances in scientific research at the Koch and Pasteur institutes in Europe and motivated by his own grief, Rockefeller founded the first biomedical research center in the United States.[6]

Sandro collaborated at the institute with the French surgeon, biologist and Nobel laureate Alexis Carrel, who studied the growth of organic tissue. In 1912 Dr. Carrel extracted cells from the heart of a chicken embryo and placed them in a culture where they grew and reproduced at such a rapid rate that their cellular mass doubled in size every two days. Old cells were destroyed by trained technicians as new ones were generated in a seemingly endless cycle. Using high-powered magnification combined with time-lapse photography, Sandro created for Carrel and the institute motion pictures of the growth and development of successive generations of chicken heart cells, still thriving in their culture after nine years. Cell proliferation was expected to continue far beyond the normal lifespan of a chicken (six to twelve years), fueling speculation about human immortality through science.

Alexis Carrel in his lab at the Rockefeller Institute

Alexis Carrel in his lab at the Rockefeller Institute

The projection of Sandro’s film for the Fabbris’ guests in the library that evening was timely. New Yorkers were abuzz about the immortal chicken heart. Just four days earlier, on April 23, 1921, Carrel and Fabbri had shown their moving pictures in Philadelphia at the meeting of the American Philosophical Society, and the next day an article about the chicken heart appeared in The New York Tribune.[7] Julie’s eyewitness account, recorded for her daughter, captured her own sense of wonder and, no doubt, that of her peers regarding the trajectory of modern science, a feeling probably intensified by Einstein’s presence in America.

"After dinner, Sandro Fabbri showed us his wonderful moving pictures of the growth of tissue. He photographs a particle of tissue under a microscope lens that magnifies it the maximum number of times which in a modern microscope is something incredible. Even under so powerful a microscope the actual motions of growing protoplasm cannot be observed, altho from hour to hour the difference in the extent of growth can be marked. Therefore, they use a cinematograph which takes a cliche every quarter, or half, or hour. Then they flash it on the screen at a rate of speed which shows the motion of the tissue growing.

But that is not all — Nine years ago, at the Rockefeller Institute here they took a piece of the heart of a chicken and put it in a sympathetic serum made of the white part of the blood with the hemeglobin [sic] left out. The piece began to grow (as it is now known any other piece of tissue would do under similar circumstances). When it grew so much as to be inconvenient to keep they cut it up and start new cultures with it. This process is repeated every 48 hours I think, with the result that the tissue we see today is a continuous part of the piece with which they began nine years ago. And there is no reason to think that the pieces would ever stop growing under the same conditions. This almost amounts to saying that matter is immortal — does it not?

In other words, outside the body in a sympathetic medium the growth of tissue continues unchecked for an illimitable time. Within the body it is kept down in the interests of the general organization. By what checks we do not exactly know, but they are the checks which make for the preservation of type and of the relative importance and development of the separate organs peculiar to types."[8]

Later on in her letter, Julie volunteered her impression of Sandro himself and his contribution to science:

"Fabbri does not strike me at all as a scientific man altho he loves doing superficial work and getting a certain éclat from it. Nevertheless, he began a notable thing which I daresay is now a part of the technique of all biological departments."[9]

A little more than ten months later, in February 1922, forty-four-year-old Sandro Fabbri went duck hunting in the Great South Bay off the coast of Long Island and caught a severe cold that developed into pneumonia. Three days later Sandro was dead.[10] Ironically, the man who fostered the biomedical advances of the Rockefeller Institute through micro-cinematography succumbed to complications from pneumonia at the very moment the institute was working to develop an effective cure for this widespread and virulent disease.

Edith, rumored to have been in love with her younger brother-in-law and devastated by his death, arranged to have Sandro’s body buried in the Shepard family plot, near the Vanderbilt mausoleum on Staten Island.[11] Thirty-two years later Edith joined Sandro in death and they lie buried near one another in the Moravian Cemetery.

A year after Sandro’s death, Edith divorced Ernesto and appropriated the Fabbri mansion for herself. She resided there until 1949, when she gave her home, known today as The House of the Redeemer, to the Episcopal Church to be used as a retreat house.[12]

Ernesto remarried in 1923, barely three months after his divorce. Following the death of his second wife, he returned to his native Florence, where he died in 1943.

And what became of the immortal chicken heart? The cells continued to thrive for another 25 years after Julie’s memorable evening at the Fabbris’ dinner party. Carrel returned to France in 1939, entrusting the cells to a colleague and two technicians, who dutifully cared for the cells at the Rockefeller Institute until they left to work at the laboratory of the American Cyanamid Company in Pearl River, New York. The cells went with them and were used in experiments to test the toxicity of drugs and germicides. In the end, having outlived both their novelty and any foreseeable scientific usefulness, the cells of the immortal chicken heart, still thriving, were discarded in 1946.[13]


Margaret A. Brucia has taught Latin in New York and Rome for many years and is a Fulbright scholar, the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome.


[1] Julia Gardiner Gayley to Mary Gayley Senni, April 27, 1921, author's private collection.

[2] “The History of the House of the Redeemer,” http://www.houseoftheredeemer.org/history.html.

[3] Percy Preston, Jr., A Place Apart (New York: The House of the Redeemer, 2012), 21.

[4] Preston, A Place Apart, 24.

[5] “Alessandro Fabbri,” Natural History: The Journal of the American Museum of Natural History XXII (1922), 93.

[6] “The Rockefeller University: History,” https://www.rockefeller.edu/about/history/ (last accessed August 24, 2017).

[7] “Two Nurses and Doctor Attend Carrel’s Living ‘Chicken Heart,'” New-York Tribune, April 24, 1921.

[8] Gayley to Senni, April 27, 1921.

[9] Id.

[10] Preston, A Place Apart, 32; “Alessandro Fabbri Dies of Pneumonia,” New York Times, February 7, 1922.

[11] Florence Adele Sloan and Louis Auchincloss, Maverick in Mauve: The Diary of a Romantic Age (Garden City: Doubleday & Co., 1983), 131.

[12] Preston, A Place Apart, 37.

[13] Jiang, Lijing, “Alexis Carrel’s Immortal Chicken Heart Cultures (1912-1946),” Embryo Project Encyclopedia, http://embryo.asu.edu/handle/10776/3937 (last accessed July 2, 2017).