Springville Laboratories in a 1959 aerial photo.  Top to bottom: Mr. Marsh’s house, the new lab under construction, the 1932 administration building and library, the 1914 laboratory and in the foreground the original farm house

By Derek M. Otto

A funny story came my way a few days ago. It was about a man driving down Woodward Avenue in the early 1900s.  He was one of the first in town to have a motorcar.  As he approached Buffalo Street, he didn’t apply the brakes, but instead yelled, “Whoa! Whoa!”  The car didn’t stop; instead, it went straight on.  Well in those days, there wasn’t a parking lot, but Shuttleworth’s Pond.  Both the man and the car went into the water.  The driver was Dr. Mark Brooks, one of Springville’s first doctors.

Interestingly enough, just a few years before he took a swim with his car, Dr. Roswell Park and Edward Butler, publisher of the Buffalo News at the time, had approached the New York State Legislature about funding a cancer lab at the University of Buffalo.  In 1898, the legislation was approved, and the legislature granted $7,500. Three rooms at the University of Buffalo School of Medicine were dedicated to the New York State Pathology Laboratory.

By 1901, the lab had outgrown its space and a new facility was built at the corner of Hill and Elm Streets in Buffalo.   

In 1913, Dr. Brooks—of car swimming fame— led an effort to give a 31-acre farm site on East Main Street in Springville to the New York State Institute for the Study of Malignant Diseases. At the time, it was listed as a biological station.   The farm would become Springville Laboratories of Roswell Park Memorial Institute.   

In 1914, Dr. Harvey Gaylord, the director of the Institute, put Mr. Millard Marsh in charge of the facility.  In 1914, the NYS Legislature budgeted $15,000 for the facility in Springville and in 1915, another $20,000.   Expansions would include a 1932 administration building and library, in 1959, a one million dollar laboratory, and in 1983, facilities to study fish.

Mr. Marsh (director 1914-1953) would begin the work of inbreeding thousands of mice.  His work would be furthered under the directorship of Dr. Leonell Strong (1953-1964).  This would inevitably give Springville Labs the nickname “the mouse house.”   

Dr. Strong and his mouse collection left Springville in 1964, after being forced to retire from New York State, and continued his research with Dr. Jonas Salk at the Salk Institute in California.

In 1964, Dr. Julius Ambrus took over as director of the facility.

In 1975, Dr. Michael McGarry took over the labs from Ambrus and remained until it closed in 1993.

It is important to note that the work on development of strains of mice really led to the development of understanding, diagnosing and treating many forms of cancers and other diseases.  In a twenty-first century mindset, it may be a little disturbing to realize that in addition to mice, the Springville Labs raised monkeys, beagles and mongrel dogs, poultry, mutant chickens (what—no teenage mutant ninja turtles?!), horses, goats, trout and salmon.   At its peak, over 30 species of animals were kept at the labs, in addition to 60,000 mice.   

In the 1950s and 1960s, the labs offered educational opportunities for high school teachers as well.   

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Springville Laboratories also housed the NYS Department of Agricultural and Markets Mastitis Lab. (Mastitis is an infection of breasts and udders and can be detrimental to dairy operations.)  Run by Cornell University, the lab was a mastitis control lab for the 11 counties of WNY.

It wasn’t a job that attracted people with a fear of mice.  A friend told me how she had applied for a job there one summer and when the interviewer opened a drawer and it was full of mice, she concluded it wasn’t a place she wanted to work.

One of the great legacies of Springville labs should be its relationship in the connection of cancer and tobacco use.   Roswell had a machine called the tar baby, which was a machine that could smoke a hundred cigarettes at time. Tar was collected and spread on mice until a tumor developed.  The tumor was then removed and studied.

At one point, a horse was given a mask that forced it smoke several packs of cigarettes until it died and was autopsied.  It was cruel work, but the result was the ability to diagnose certain cancers related to smoking.   

  In addition to the lab at Springville, Roswell had labs in Orchard Park and West Seneca.  Attitudes toward animal research had been changing and funding was moved away from Roswell Park.  The Springville Laboratories and the other labs closed in 1993.

Due to several years of neglect, the laboratory building was razed a few years ago.  The property is still owned by NYS.