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George Gey paid his way through a biology degree at the University of Pittsburgh by working as a carpenter and mason, and he could make nearly anything for cheap or free. During his second year in medical school, he rigged a microscope with a time-lapse motion picture camera to capture live cells on film. It was a Frankensteinish mishmash of microscope parts, glass, and 16-millimeter camera equipment from who knows where, plus metal scraps, and an old motor from Shapiro’s junkyard. He built it in a hole he’d blasted in the foundation of Hopkins, right below the morgue, its base entirely underground and surrounded by a thick wall of cork to keep it from jiggling when streetcars passed. At night, a Lithuanian lab assistant slept next to the camera on a cot, listening to its constant tick, making sure it stayed stable through the night, waking every hour to refocus it. With that camera, Gey and his mentor, Warren Lewis, filmed the growth of cells, a process so slow – like the growth of a flower – the naked eye couldn’t see it. They played the film at high speed so they could watch cell division on the screen in one smooth motion, like a story unfolding in a flip book.

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