Calvin, Melvin

views updated May 21 2018


(b. St. Paul, Minnesota, 8 April 1911;

d. Berkeley, California, 8 January 1997), chemistry, photosynthesis, origin of life, cancer, molecular basis of learning.

Calvin is remembered above all for his work in photo-synthesis, research that won him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1961. During the latter part of the 1940s, and throughout the following decade, he led and inspired an outstanding group of researchers in unraveling a mechanism that had been a mystery for centuries. Not only was his scientific understanding outstanding, so was his leadership. Under his guidance, what was probably the first of the large integrated, modern research units in the biological sciences flourished unsurpassed for more than fifteen years.

Early Days . Born to Elias and Rose (née Hervitz) Calvin, immigrant parents from East Europe, Melvin Calvin began to show an interest in science even in his tender years. As a child, he collected rocks, watched birds, and mused about the nature and composition of the many products he saw in his parents’ grocery store. It led inevitably to a lifelong dedication to chemistry.

The family moved to Detroit, where Melvin attended the Central High School before going on to take a degree in chemistry at Michigan College of Science and Technology. There followed a PhD at the University of Minnesota, where he worked with George Glockler on the electron affinity of halogens (initially iodine and later also bromine and chlorine) from space-charge effects.

Leaving Minnesota with his doctorate, Calvin used his own savings to supplement a postdoctoral fellowship from the National Research Council to work for two years with Michael Polány, as Rockefeller Fellow during the 1935–1937 period, at the University of Manchester. His research topic was the interactions between quantum mechanical theory and chemical experimentation, starting with platinum-hydrogen activation systems.

Move to Berkeley . While Calvin was still in Manchester, Joel Hildebrand of the Chemistry Department in Berkeley paid a passing visit there and met Calvin. With a glowing recommendation from Polányi, Calvin was invited to join the Berkeley faculty, where he remained for the next sixty years. Calvin’s innate talent and experience were the sources of his inspiration, competence, and confidence; he was soon to benefit from being in the right place at the right time, and good luck followed in due course.

For Calvin, the period in Manchester was part of becoming a mature scientist: He gained from the experience of living outside his native country and, as a postdoctoral fellow, was recognized as one of them by his fellow scientists. He was drawn into studies on the activation of hydrogen by phthalocyanine and copper, becoming familiar with pigment chemistry and light absorption. Ten years later that experience was to prove invaluable, providing him the opportunity to embark upon what emerged as his life’s great contributions to biological chemistry. But in 1937, he joined the Berkeley faculty as an assistant professor with an interest in chelate chemistry; in the war that followed just a few years later, he used his knowledge and skills as a participant in the Manhattan Project. In 1942, he married Genevieve Jemtegaard, a junior probation officer.

The Beginning of the Photosynthesis Studies . Calvin’s big chance came in the autumn of 1945; to understand its significance it is necessary to go back to the history of photosynthesis and the level of understanding before Word War II. It had been known for two centuries that

sunlight allows green plants to fix atmospheric carbon dioxide into all the organic compounds needed for the plants to grow and reproduce. What was not known was how it was done. There were theories—including a suggestion that the fixation of carbon dioxide first formed formaldehyde, which was then supposed to polymerize into sugars. But the basis for that idea was simply that the empirical formula for formaldehyde (CH2 O) multiplied six times gave the equally empirical formula for a hexose sugar (C6 H12 O6); there was no experimental evidence and, indeed, plants fail to produce sugar when supplied with formaldehyde and are actually poisoned by it.

The problem, of course, was that, once inside the plant, the carbon atoms that had originated in the carbon dioxide could not be distinguished from those already there; where had the carbon dioxide carbons gone? Hope for resolution came with the discovery in the early 1930s of the first radioisotope of carbon,11 C.

By virtue of its radioactivity,11 CO2 supplied to plants would allow the incoming carbon to be located in whatever compound(s) in which it might become incorporated. The limitation was the way carbon-11 is produced (in the cyclotron, compounds containing nitrogen-14 are bombarded with protons; each impacted nitrogen atom captures a proton and then emits an (-particle to yield an atom of carbon-11) and its short half-life of only twenty minutes. Early attempts to use it, by Sam Ruben and Martin Kamen (joined later by Andrew Benson), took place in prewar Berkeley, but the experimental difficulties were immense; experiments had to be completed within two or three hours of manufacturing the nuclide.

Those studies were undertaken in the Radiation Laboratory of the University of California at Berkeley—just yards away from Calvin’s office. Ernest Lawrence, director of the laboratory and inventor of the cyclotron used to produce the carbon-11, reasoned from his knowledge of nuclear physics that a longer-lived isotope (14 C) should exist. It was indeed discovered in 1940 but no more than minute amounts were available, and all further developments ceased when the United States entered the war in December 1941. Everybody involved had more important things to do, and by the time the war ended the original team was no longer in place.

ORL and the Bio-Organic Chemistry Group . But Lawrence had not forgotten. The Manhattan Project generated sizable quantities of carbon-14, to which Lawrence, as director of the Radiation Laboratory (the contractor for the Manhattan Project), had access. The story has it that one day in the autumn of 1945 Lawrence and Calvin were walking back to their offices after lunch in the faculty club. Lawrence suggested to Calvin that he might like to make use of the newly available carbon-14 to do two things: develop its chemistry and synthesize compounds for medical research, and use it to resolve the age-old photosynthesis puzzle: the pathway of carbon from carbon dioxide to sugars, proteins, and all the other compounds in green plants. Lawrence would supply the funding, the carbon-14, and a building, an old two-story wooden structure that had been the original home of his cyclotron and known as “ORL—the Old Radiation Lab.” It was to become world-famous among plant biochemists. The Bio-Organic Chemistry Group was born.

As the prime experimental tool, Calvin’s group decided to use the green microalga Chlorella rather than the leaves of a higher plant; as a chemist, Calvin was much happier using a suspension of a unicellular organism that could be dispensed in a pipette than trying to get uniform samples of leaves.

The basic experiment was to shine a bright light onto a suspension of the algal cells in the famous “lollipop,” a thin vessel (so that light reached all the cells uniformly) into which, at the start of the experiment, was injected a solution containing14 CO2 in the form of NaH14 CO3. At precise times thereafter, from seconds to minutes, the

stopcock at the base of the vessel was opened to allow some of the suspension to fall into a flask of boiling ethanol, instantly killing the alga and stopping all biochemical reactions. The location of the carbon-14 in products could then be determined by appropriate analysis.

In the early days analysis depended on ion-exchange resins, a slow and tedious procedure. Nevertheless, it did allow the identification of the first compound to incorporate carbon from carbon dioxide; it turned out to be the 3-carbon sugar acid phosphate, 3-phosphoglyceric acid, thereafter known around the world as PGA. In short-term experiments, the carbon-14 was found almost entirely in the terminal carboxyl carbon, strongly suggesting that carbon dioxide had been added in some way to a 2-carbon receptor. The next problem was to identify it.

If the research had relied permanently on ion-exchange chromatography, the path of carbon in photo-synthesis might never have been elucidated. Fortunately, in 1944, the technique of paper chromatography had been developed in Britain by Archer J. P. Martin, Raphael Consden, and Richard L. M. Synge. By 1948, word of this new and powerful technique had reached the Botany Department in Berkeley, from whence it was brought to Calvin’s laboratory by a graduate student, William H. Stepka.

Resolving the Photosynthesis Puzzle . Paper chromatography revolutionized the group’s analytical procedures; using a wide panoply of classical and novel analytical procedures combined with chromatography, a whole range of compounds incorporating carbon-14 from labeled bicarbonate were identified (always in minute chemical quantities), revealed, and made accessible by virtue of their14 C labeling. Each large paper chromatogram was placed against a sheet of x-ray film and sealed in a lightproof envelope; in the course of days or weeks, the radioactive emissions produced a latent image on the film which, when developed, gave the exact location, size, and shape of each “spot” of a labeled compound; such “radioauto-grams” were the mainstay of the path-of-carbon research. It took years to identify all the radioactive spots, but in time that was done and maps were produced of how

compounds of interest migrated in the chromatographic system, which everybody in the lab used.

The kinetic relationships between these compounds were explored: How fast and in which order did these substances acquire carbon-14? Degradation methods were developed allowing the accumulation of radiocarbon to be measured within the individual atoms of the product molecules.

It eventually became clear that carbon dioxide was converted into hexoses by a reversal of glycolysis (breakdown of sugar into carbon dioxide and water, releasing energy), the reducing power necessary to drive the process deriving from the capture of sunlight by the energy-conversion mechanism of chloroplasts. But identifying the 2-carbon acceptor with which carbon dioxide combined was much more difficult; in short-term labeling experiments this acceptor would not itself be labeled so there was no obvious way of identifying it.

Clues ultimately came from the kinetics of the intramolecular distribution of carbon-14 within many of the compounds already shown to be products of carbon dioxide fixation. As it gradually became clear that the biochemistry of carbon fixation was a cyclic process, Calvin and his colleagues moved towards the idea of a 5-carbon acceptor, which, in accepting one molecule of carbon dioxide, would be split into two molecules of PGA, each identical with the other except for its radioactive labeling pattern.

In two classic experiments in 1954 and 1955, Peter Massini from Switzerland and Alex Wilson, a New Zealander, showed that when the light was switched off and then on again, or the carbon dioxide concentration suddenly reduced, the kinetic behavior of compounds in the putative cycle was consistent with the operation of a cyclic pathway. By the late 1950s, the mystery of the path of carbon in photosynthesis had essentially been solved except for some details. A detailed understanding of the enzymology, particularly of the primary fixation reaction, came later from work in a variety of laboratories.

Calvin and the group’s interest in photosynthesis was by no means confined to metabolic pathways; many pioneering experiments were conducted to characterize the primary photochemical events. The laboratory was one of the first two to apply the new method of electron para-magnetic resonance to photosynthetic systems, which showed there were two kinds of organic free radicals produced as a result of light absorption, one of which appeared to be either a one-electron reduced or oxidized chlorophyll species. Pursuit of such studies eventually led to the assignment of one of these signals to a pair of chlorophyll molecules which served as the primary electron donor in photosystem I, while the second was assigned to an oxidized tyrosine side chain in the protein of photosystem II.

This most exciting period of discovery yielded a famous series of twenty-three papers (the last in 1958) under the title “The Path of Carbon in Photosynthesis.” ORL became the mecca for biochemists, biophysicists, and plant physiologists from around the world; graduate students (mostly, but not exclusively, from the United States) came for two or three years to carry out their thesis work, while postdoctoral visitors from around the world spent a year or two before going back home and spreading the word. In 1961, Calvin himself was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, in just and proper recognition of a remarkable achievement in inspiring his colleagues to achieve the success in which all of them shared.

As he himself recognized, he was but one of many scientists who had contributed. Foremost among them were Andrew A. Benson and James A. Bassham. Benson had for a time been part of the prewar11 C effort; at the war’s end he was no longer in Berkeley, and Calvin invited him back to take charge of the photosynthesis subgroup. For ten years they did it together before Benson left to become independent at another university. Thereafter, Bassham, who had joined the group as a graduate student after service in the U.S. Navy, became the de facto leader of the photosynthesis laboratory activities, with his publications world famous. He stayed for the whole of his working life.

Isotopic carbon and related activities were run by Bert M. Tolbert until he left for Colorado in 1958. Just as in the Benson/Bassham exchange, he was succeeded by Richard M. Lemmon, who had also joined as a graduate student some years earlier. Lemmon’s specialty was hot atom recoil chemistry, and he, too, remained a member of the group until retirement.

After ORL . Inevitably, after the excitement of the path of carbon, the character of the Bio-Organic Chemistry Group changed. ORL itself was demolished in 1959 as part of a new chemistry development; all that remained was a plaque, although for many years Calvin kept the old door in his office. The Bio-Organic Chemistry Group was temporarily relocated several hundred yards away in the Life Sciences Building, with uncertainty about their ultimate home. Indeed, the two parts, photosynthesis and isotope work, had never been together under one roof; the latter had occupied space in the Donner Laboratory, itself a distance from ORL.

Calvin had plans for a new building. ORL was notable for its comparative lack of internal subdivisions. The researchers in the large labs were constantly talking to one another as they went about their work, while in the center of the main laboratory stood a large white table on which the radioautograms were scrutinized, compared, and discussed. A map of the relevant compounds hung on the wall above the table. That table was the social and scientific nerve center of the group; it was where people constantly met for coffee and discussion. Not infrequently, such discussions would generate new ideas for experiments and inevitably another avenue of inquiry had been established.

It was very important that a new building had enough space to accommodate the whole group and also retained in some way the open structure. As funding became available, a three-story circular building was designed with half of the two upper floors open spaces without walls. The building, originally called the Laboratory of Chemical Biodynamics (LCB) and later Melvin Calvin Laboratory, was opened with some ceremony in November 1963. While the new building was modern, and with facilities that made the lovingly remembered ORL seem in some ways old-fashioned if not primitive, the ambience was never quite recreated.

There were a number of reasons. At the founding of the group in 1945, Calvin himself was thirty-four years old and his associates ten years younger. Some of them were still there in the 1960s and 1970s, experienced and respected scientists in their forties and fifties, each with their own research teams. Moreover, the group as a whole never again had that unity of purpose it possessed during the path-of-carbon years, and Calvin was not able to provide that same sort of leadership. Gradually, fragmentation began.

Calvin himself acquired a number of interests. He never entirely abandoned either the biochemical or the physical chemical aspects of photosynthesis, but his involvement was greatly diluted by his other activities. In the following twenty years, they encompassed the chemical origins of life, the biochemistry of learning, control of protein synthesis, cancer, moon rock analysis, novel synthetic biomembrane models for plant photosystems, and the use of certain plant oils as potential vehicle fuels. A number of these developed into discrete research activities, often accompanied by the recruitment of a scientist of some seniority and experience and with Calvin’s continuing involvement and encouragement.

In addition, Calvin was at various times a consultant for Dow, Upjohn, and Diamond Shamrock as well as some start-ups, and was a member at one time of the Dow main board. During the late 1950s and early 1960s he was chairman of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Science and Public Policy.

Furthermore, after Calvin was awarded the Nobel Prize, President Kennedy appointed him to his Science Advisory Committee. Calvin, whose life hitherto had been devoted almost totally to science and scientific discovery, suddenly found a whole new world of politics, social significance, and the rest. For him, of course, that was a new voyage of discovery, undertaken with his customary enthusiasm.

Inevitably, he found himself more and more stretched among his many concerns. Once upon a time, in the early days, he was constantly in the lab. As Andy Benson wrote:

Melvin usually finished his lectures, office and committee work about 5:30 p.m. and stopped in at the lab with his usual question, “What’s new?.” Though we had just started the experiment for the day, we usually had some answer. But, the next morning when Melvin came in at 8 or before; he was an early riser; there was the first cheery question, “Well, what’s new?” There was no letup. I had to keep some tidbits in reserve so that there was always something interesting to report. When important chromatograms were exposed on X-ray film we used two sheets, one to develop too early, to appease Melvin’s insatiable curiosity, and one for proper documentation. (Communication to the author, 9 September 1998)

From an early date in its history, the group would meet collectively for a seminar round a long table at 8 a.m. on Friday mornings. When they first started, Calvin (who always sat at the front, on the right-hand side facing the speaker) would look round the room, point a finger at a colleague and say, “You tell us what you’ve been doing.” No sooner was the poor unfortunate so selected halfway through his opening sentence than Calvin asked the first of many, many questions. The graduate students were petrified but dared not absent themselves. So it became the practice at the Thursday management lunch of the more senior group members to nominate the speaker for the next morning. At least that gave the victim time to collect his thoughts and arrange his material, and many a student worked nonstop through the night to do so. It was only after twenty years or so that a schedule encompassing several months was drawn up.

Calvin was perceived as being fierce in his questioning; he was not unkind or rude but certainly determined to have an answer. It was in practice an excellent training for his colleagues, some of whom adopted similar styles when later they left for academic positions elsewhere and formed their own groups.

The Friday morning seminars continued throughout Calvin’s directorship of the group, but his own involvement in the details of lab activities and results declined markedly. There was much too much of it, and he was busy on too many fronts, both inside and outside the lab. Towards the end, his immediate students had something of a thin time: The fire and imagination were undiminished but even for Calvin the day was only twenty-four hours long.

The Outstanding Scientist . Calvin was a superb lecturer, particularly in his earlier days when he felt able to get away with total informality. Hitching himself onto the front of the lecturer’s bench or table, he would speak without notes, both he and his listeners carried away by enthusiasm for the topic. He seemed to have no concept of time and would suddenly pull himself up short, realizing he had overrun and would hastily try to bring his presentation to an orderly end.

When awarded the Nobel Prize, he was shocked to learn that protocol demanded him to give his acceptance lecture in exactly forty minutes. So, perhaps for the first time in his life, he wrote out his lecture and got his colleagues to edit and time it for him. His wife, following his text, sat next to the projectionist in order to indicate when the next slide was to be shown, thus saving Calvin the trouble of saying so and giving him a few extra precious seconds.

Those who knew Calvin and worked with him will never forget the experience. He was the most stimulating colleague one could imagine, ready to entertain any idea backed up with reason and sense. He read science voraciously; challenging him on any issue was no easy matter because he knew where the evidence had been published. But he was not averse to floating proposals that themselves were flimsily based and took being shot down with good grace—provided the ammunition was itself reliable.

Calvin retired as director in 1980 but continued to occupy an office and some laboratory space in the chemistry department. He had suffered a severe heart attack in 1949 from which he recovered completely, but after his wife died in 1987, he became rather depressed and gradually grew more frail. He died on 8 January 1997 after suffering a fall, survived by his daughters Elin and Karole, and his son Noel.



With Gerald E. K. Branch. The Theory of Organic Chemistry. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1941.

With Charles Heidelberger, James C. Reid, Bert M. Tolbert, and Peter E. Yankwich. Isotopic Carbon: Techniques in Its Measurement and Chemical Manipulation. New York: John Wiley, 1949.

With Arthur E. Martell. The Chemistry of Metal Chelate Compounds. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1952.

With James A. Bassham. The Path of Carbon in Photosynthesis. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1957.

The Path of Carbon in Photosynthesis. Nobel Lectures, Chemistry 1942–1962, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, < >1964. Also available at

Chemical Evolution: Molecular Evolution towards the Origins of Living Systems on Earth and Elsewhere. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.

“Melvin Calvin: Chemistry and Chemical Biodynamics at Berkeley, 1937–1980.” Archived in the History of Science and Technology Program, The Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley, 1984.

Following the Trail of Light: A Scientific Odyssey. Washington, DC: American Chemical Society, 1992. This book contains a bibliography listing many of Calvin’s papers.


Moses, Vivian. “Professor Melvin Calvin” (obituary). The Times (London), 16 January 1997.

———. “Melvin Calvin (1911–1997).” Nature 385, 13 February, 1997.

———. “Melvin Calvin (1911–1997).” Advances in Carbohydrate Chemistry and Biology 55 (1999), 14–21.

Moses, Vivian, and Sheila Moses, eds. The Bio-Organic Chemistry Group, University of California (1945–63): Interviews for an Oral History. 1998. Recordings and transcripts archived in the Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley, at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia, and in the British Library, London.

Seaborg, Glenn T., and Andrew A. Benson. “Melvin Calvin.” Biographical Memoirs, vol. 75. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences, 1998. Also available at

Zallen, Doris T. “Redrawing the Boundaries of Molecular Biology: The Case of Photosynthesis.” Journal of the History of Biology 26 (1993), 65–87. Not much on Calvin, but good for background reading.

Vivian Moses

Calvin, Melvin

views updated May 18 2018

CALVIN, Melvin

(b. 8 April 1911 in Saint Paul, Minnesota; d. 8 January 1997 in Berkeley, California), biochemist who received the 1961 Nobel Prize for chemistry for his discovery of the chemical pathways of photosynthesis.

Calvin was the son of Elias Calvin, a factory worker originally from Lithuania, and Rose Irene (Hervitz) Calvin, a homemaker originally from what is now the nation of Georgia. Calvin attended public schools and graduated from Central High School in Detroit, Michigan, in 1927. He received his B.Sc. in chemistry in 1931 from the Michigan College of Mining and Technology (now the Michigan Technological University) in Houghton, Michigan, where he was the college's first chemistry major, and his Ph.D. in chemistry in 1935 from the University of Minnesota. His doctoral work was under the direction of George A. Glocker, and his dissertation examined the electron affinity of halogens—that is, the means by which elements in the halogen family (including chlorine and fluorine) exert the strong chemical bonding forces that they do. Calvin was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship, and from 1935 to 1937 worked with Michael Polanyi, a Hungarian-born physical chemist best known for his work on adsorption processes and his philosophy of science and society, at the University of Manchester, England. While studying in Manchester, Calvin developed an interest in coordination catalysis, especially metalloporphyrins (organic molecules producing chlorophyll and hemoglobin).

Calvin's academic career started in 1937 at the University of California, Berkeley, as an instructor, at the invitation of Gilbert N. Lewis. He was the first non-Berkeley graduate to be hired by the Department of Chemistry in more than twenty-five years and was one of the first chemists to join Ernest O. Lawrence's Radiation Laboratory. Calvin became assistant professor in 1941, associate professor in 1945, full professor in 1947, and university professor of chemistry in 1971. He developed an interest in the theoretical aspects of organic molecular structure and behavior. (The term organic in chemistry refers to the study of carbon-containing compounds.) His two main publications during his early years at Berkeley were The Color of Organic Substances (1939), with G. N. Lewis, and The Theory of Organic Chemistry (1941), with G. E. K. Branch.

His career was interrupted from 1941 to 1945 as he worked on government projects during World War II, including the National Defense Research Council and two years on the Manhattan Project. On 4 October 1942 Calvin married Marie Genevieve Jemtegaard; they had two daughters and one son.

Calvin's work in photosynthesis (the process by which green plants use solar energy to convert water and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates and oxygen) began in the mid-1940s. Calvin was awarded the 1961 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his explanation of the process of photosynthesis. He developed a system using carbon-14, utilizing the newly available radioisotopes from the Hanford and Oak Ridge National Laboratories, as a tracer in the green algae Chlorella. He and his team mapped the complete route that carbon travels through a plant during photosynthesis, starting from its absorption as atmospheric carbon dioxide to its conversion into carbohydrates and other compounds. His experiments consisted of arresting Chlorella's growth at various stages and measuring the amount of radioactive material present, thus being able to identify most of the reactions involved in the intermediate steps of photosynthesis.

Calvin's work showed that sunlight acts on the chlorophyll in a plant to fuel the manufacture of organic compounds other than just carbon dioxide, as previously believed. It was already known that there were two interdependent processes in photosynthesis: the light reaction, in which a plant captures energy from sunlight, and the dark reaction, in which carbon dioxide and water combine to form carbohydrates such as sugar and starch. Calvin's work on photosynthesis concentrated on the light-independent reaction, previously referred to as the dark reaction. Calvin used paper chromatography (a method used to analyze complex mixtures by separating them into the chemicals from which they are made, with paper used as a stationary phase), to identify ten intermediate products generated by the photosynthetic process. This cycle of reactions is now referred to as the Calvin Cycle.

Calvin was director of the organic chemistry group in the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory from 1946, and he established the laboratory's Chemical Biodynamics Division, which he directed for twenty years.

A new, three-story building was opened on the Berkeley campus in 1963 to house his research group. The doughnut-shaped structure, designed by Calvin, had an open interior with radial lab benches, all intended to foster an atmosphere of cooperative teamwork. Upon Calvin's retirement, the unique, circular building was renamed the Melvin Calvin Laboratory.

Calvin received numerous awards and honorary degrees during his lifetime, including election to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Society of London, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences and Letters, and the German Academy of Scientists. Calvin wrote more than 500 papers and seven books, including Chemical Evolution (1969). Calvin received the Davy Medal from the Royal Society of London (1964), the Priestley Medal from the American Chemical Society (1978), the Gold Medal from the American Institute of Scientists (1979), and the National Medal of Science (1989). From 1963 to 1966, during the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, Calvin was a member of the President's Science Advisory Committee, and in 1975, under President Gerald R. Ford, he served on the President's Advisory Group on Major Advances in Science and Technology. Calvin also advised the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Department of Energy. Both NASA's moon missions and its search for extraterrestrial life were influenced by Calvin's input. His efforts included protecting the Moon against biological contamination from Earth during the Apollo landings; preventing cross-contamination between the Moon and Earth; searching for organic and biological compounds in lunar samples; and planning for the search for biological compounds on other planets.

In 1980, after stepping down from the directorship of the laboratory of chemical biodynamics, Calvin directed a small research group in the chemistry department until 1996, studying artificial photosynthesis and plant-produced fuel and chemical feedstock substitutes. He maintained a lifelong interest in adapting photosynthetic techniques for energy production.

After years of failing health, Calvin died at the age of eighty-five from a heart attack. On 25 January 1997 a memorial service was held for him at Hertz Hall at Berkeley. Calvin's alma mater, Michigan Technological University, established the Melvin Calvin Nobel Laureate Lecture in 1997. In 2002 Berkeley announced the creation of the Melvin Calvin Distinguished Professorship in the department of chemistry.

Biographical information about Calvin is in Eduard Farber, Nobel Prize Winners in Chemistry, 1901–1961 (1963); David W. Swift, SETI Pioneers: Scientists Talk About Their Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (1990): 116–135; and David H. and Diane W. Husic, Nobel Laureates in Chemistry, 1901–1992 (1993): 423–425. Obituaries are in the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle (both 10 Jan. 1997) and the Los Angeles Times (11 Jan. 1997).

Maria Pacheco

Melvin Calvin

views updated Jun 27 2018

Melvin Calvin

American chemist Melvin Calvin (born 1911) did research that yielded important discoveries over broad areas of physical and biological chemistry, from metal-organic chemistry to the chemical origin of life.

Melvin Calvin was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on April 8, 1911, to Russian immigrant parents. The family moved to Detroit, Michigan when Calvin was a child. He attended Michigan College of Mining and Technology, and, after a break of several years during the Great Depression that found him working in a Detroit brass factory, he graduated in 1931. He received his Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Minnesota in 1935. His doctoral thesis concerned the electron affinity of iodine and bromide. A Rockefeller fellowship allowed Calvin the opportunity to do postdoctoral study at the University of Manchester, England, after which he joined the chemistry department of the University of California, Berkeley, in 1937, working as an instructor in chemistry before becoming a professor in 1947. He married Genevieve Jemtegaard in 1942; they had three children.

Organic Chemical Systems

At Berkeley, Calvin became interested in the structure and behavior of organic molecules, an interest that had been inspired by research on the catalytic reactions of the organic molecules involved in photosynthesis that he had undertaken while in England. He pursued his own studies in addition to his teaching duties, but was interrupted from both upon the United States entry into World War II. During the war, although he continued to teach, Calvin gave up his research to work for the National Defense Research Council and, later, as part of the Manhattan project charged with developing the atomic bomb, where he developed a process for procuring pure oxygen from the atmosphere that has since had significant peace-time applications for medical patients with breathing problems.

Resuming his research at Berkeley after the end of the war, Calvin studied the physical and chemical properties of organic compounds, writing The Theory of Organic Chemistry (1940) and The Chemistry of Metal Chelate Compounds (1952). His clear understanding of the nature of organic molecules was to prove valuable in his subsequent work in biological chemistry. He formed the bio-organic chemistry group, which later expanded to the Laboratory of Chemical Biodynamics, in the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory of the University of California in 1945.

Maps Process of Photosynthesis

Working with his University of California associates, Calvin used the radioactive isotope carbon-14—which had become available to scientists in 1945—as a tracer for investigations of complex organic chemical systems. They described these tracer techniques in Isotopic Carbon (1949). In Calvin's research, chorella, a green algae, was suspended in water and then exposed to light. Then carbon dioxide consisting of carbon-14 was added. When the algae went through its life processes, producing carbohydrates from the carbon dioxide, water, and minerals, the presence of carbon-14 could be traced using a new research tool, paper chromatography. The series of compounds containing the radioactive carbon at different stages of photosynthesis were thus identified, and the biochemical mechanism of photosynthesis was mapped. These discoveries were described in The Path of Carbon in Photosynthesis (1957) and The Photosynthesis of Carbon Compounds (1962). Calvin's proposal that plants change light energy to chemical energy by transferring an electron in an organized array of pigment molecules and other substances was substantiated by research in his laboratory and elsewhere.

Calvin tested his theories of the chemical evolution of life with studies of organic substances found in ancient rocks and of the formation of organic molecules by irradiation of gas mixtures, thus simulating the atmosphere thought to exist on earth billions of years ago. These findings were described in Chemical Evolution (1969). He was author of over 400 publications and held a number of patents.

Consulted widely in industry, Calvin became a member of the Board of Directors of the Dow Chemical Company in 1964. He served on many scientific boards for the United States government, including the President's Science Advisory Committee for presidents Kennedy and Johnson. He was president of the American Society of Plant Physiologists in 1963-1964, president of the American Chemical Society in 1971, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London. In 1961 he received the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work on the path of carbon in photosynthesis. The Royal Society awarded him the Davy Medal in 1964 for his pioneering work in chemistry and biology, particularly the photosynthesis studies.

Despite his important contribution to chemistry and biology, Calvin continued to involve himself in research. In the 1970s, as the shortage of the world's oil fuel supply was brought into sharp perspective by the Arab Oil Embargo, he began to contemplate the possibility of alternative nature-based fuels. From a farm in Northern California, he began testing the practicality of his theory: that a plantation growing certain species of rubber trees that secrete a sap with characteristics similar to petroleum, could produce enough of this sap to constitute a viable alternative fuel source. After retiring from the University of California, Calvin continued to be honored from his scientific peers, receiving the American Chemical Society's Priestly Medal in 1978 and that organization's Oesper Prize in 1981.

Further Reading

There is no full-length biography of Calvin. Melvin Berger's, Famous Men of Modern Biology (1968), written in nontechnical language, contains a section on Calvin that emphasizes his work in photosynthesis. William Gilman, Science: U.S.A. (1965), devotes a section to Calvin and his work in chemical biosynthesis. A useful background source is John F. Hemahan, Men and Molecules (1966), which contains no biography of Calvin but discusses his work. Other information can be found in McGraw-Hill Modern Men of Science (1984), H.W. Wilson Nobel Prize Winners (1987), and David Swift SETI Pioneers (1990). □

Calvin, Melvin

views updated Jun 11 2018

Calvin, Melvin

American Biochemist

Melvin Calvin was a biochemist whose prolific career included fundamental work on the biochemistry of photosynthesis. His work led to a Nobel Prize and had Time magazine calling him "Mr. Photosynthesis."

Calvin was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on April 8, 1911, of immigrant parents. The family moved to Detroit, Michigan, where Calvin graduated from high school in 1927. He graduated from the Michigan College of Mining and Technology (now Michigan Technological University) as its first chemistry major in 1931. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in 1935. He worked two years at Manchester University with British chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi (1875-1946), who introduced him to the multidisciplinary approach that later characterized his own scientific career.

In 1937 Calvin became an instructor at the University of California at Berkeley and remained there for the rest of his career. He eventually became a professor (1947), director of the Laboratory of Chemical Biodynamics (1963), and associate director of the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory (1967; now the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory).

Together with American physical chemist Gilbert Newton Lewis (1875-1946), Calvin studied the color of organic compounds , which introduced him to the importance of the electronic structure of organic molecules. He collaborated with chemist G. E. K. Branch and cowrote The Theory of Organic Chemistry (1941), the first American book on the subject to use quantum mechanics.

In 1942 Calvin married Genevieve Jemtegaard, a juvenile probation officer who spent a great deal of time in her husband's laboratory, both assisting and collaborating with him. After their first child died of Rh incompatibility they sought to determine the chemical factors causing the illness. After the 1973 oil embargo they sought new fuel sources from plants (e.g., the genus Euphorbia ) to convert solar energy into hydrocarbons, an economically unsuccessful project.

During World War II (1939-41) Calvin devised a method for obtaining pure oxygen from the atmosphere onboard destroyers or submarines. He purified and decontaminated the irradiated uranium in fission products and isolated and purified plutonium by his solvent extraction process.

After the radioisotope carbon-14 (because of its long-lived radioactivity, it could be used to follow otherwise untraceable chemical reactions) became available, Calvin began his work on the chemical pathways of photosynthesis. This occupied him from 1946 to 1961 and won him the 1961 Nobel Prize in chemistry. He introduced carbon dioxide (CO2) labeled with carbon-14 as a tracer into a thin, round flask filled with the single-cell green alga Chlorella pyrenoidosa in suspension. The apparatus was illuminated, allowing the alga to incorporate the labeled CO2 into compounds involved in photosynthesis. Calvin isolated and identified the radioactively labeled constituents, thus determining the steps by which CO2 is converted into carbohydrates. This set of steps is now known as the Calvin-Benson cycle. Using isotopes, he also traced the path of oxygen in photosynthesis.

Calvin worked on chemical evolution and organic geochemistry, and he examined the organic constituents of Moon rocks for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. His varied research interests also included photochemistry, free radicals, artificial photosynthesis, radiation chemistry, brain chemistry, the molecular basis of learning, and the philosophy of science.

In 1987 Genevieve died of cancer. Because Calvin's personal and professional life had been built around her presence, her loss was a blow from which he never recovered. Calvin died in Berkeley, California, on January 8, 1997, after several years of declining health.

see also Photosynthesis, Carbon Fixation and; Physiologist; Physiology; Physiology, History of.

George B. Kauffman


Bassham, James A., and Melvin Calvin. The Path of Carbon in Photosynthesis. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1957.

. The Photosynthesis of Carbon Compounds. New York: W. A. Benjamin, 1962.

Calvin, Melvin. Following the Trail of Light: A Scientific Odyssey. Washington, DC:American Chemical Society, 1992.

Kauffman, George B., and Isaac Mayo. "Melvin Calvin's Trail of Light." World & I 9, no. 5 (1994): 206-13.

. "Multidisciplinary ScientistMelvin Calvin: His Life and Work." Journal of Chemical Education 73, no. 5 (1996): 412-16.

. "Melvin Calvin (1911-1997)." Chemical Intelligencer 74, no. 1 (1998): 54-56.

The Calvin-Benson cycle is named in honor of Melvin Calvin and Andrew Benson.

Calvin, Melvin

views updated May 29 2018

Calvin, Melvin


Melvin Calvin was born to immigrant parents on April 8, 1911, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Calvin's family subsequently moved to Detroit, where young Calvin attended high school. With the help of a scholarship he attended the Michigan College of Mining and Technology (now Michigan Technological University) during the years 1927 to 1931 as its first chemistry major. He received a bachelor of science degree in 1931. Because offerings in chemistry were few, he took courses in disciplines such as mineralogy, geology, paleontology, and civil engineering, which helped him in his later interdisciplinary research.

Calvin continued his studies at the University of Minnesota, where he investigated the electron affinities of halogen atoms. He received a Ph.D. degree in 1935. As a Rockefeller Foundation fellow at the University of Manchester in England (19351937), Calvin worked with Michael Polanyi, who introduced him to the interdisciplinary approach, on coordination catalysis , the activation of molecular hydrogen, and metalloporphyrins. In 1937 he joined the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, as an instructor, and remained there for the balance of his career.

During the early 1940s Calvin worked on molecular genetics. He proposed that hydrogen bonding was involved in the stacking of nucleic acid bases within chromosomes. During World War II he produced an oxygen-generating apparatus that used cobalt complexes that bond reversibly with oxygen, for use in submarines and on destroyers. As a member of the Manhattan Project , he used chelation and solvent extraction to purify and isolate plutonium from the fission products of irradiated uranium.

In 1942 Calvin married Genevieve Jemtegaard. After their first child Elin's death, related to Rh factor incompatibility, Calvin and his wife were part of an interdisciplinary project that investigated the etiology of the disease. They helped to determine the composition and structure of the Rh factor, named elinin for their daughter.

In 1946 Calvin began to investigate photosynthesis . He added carbon dioxide containing the radioactive isotope carbon-14 (as a tracer) to a suspension of the single-celled green alga Chlorella pyrenoidosa. By stopping the plant's growth at various stages and then isolating and identifying the radioactive compounds (present in minute amounts), he determined most of the reactions that comprise the intermediate steps of photosynthesis, by which carbon dioxide is converted into carbohydrates. He found that the so-called dark reactions of photosynthesis (now known as the Calvin cycle) is driven by compounds produced in the "light" reactions, which occur as a result of the absorption of light by chlorophyll (producing oxygen). This first use of carbon-14 to elucidate a chemical pathway earned Calvin the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1961. Using isotopic tracer techniques he also traced the path of oxygen in photosynthesis.

When his bioorganic research group outgrew its quarters (at Berkeley), Calvin himself designed the Laboratory of Chemical Biodynamics. His design of a circular building included spacious laboratories, many windows, and few walls. He directed the laboratory until his retirement (1980), at which time it was renamed the Melvin Calvin Laboratory. He died in Berkeley, California, on January 8, 1997, after several years of declining health.

see also Manhattan Project; Nucleic Acids; Photosynthesis.

George B. Kauffman


Calvin, Melvin (1964). "The Path of Carbon in Photosynthesis." In Nobel Lectures, Including Presentation Speeches and Laureates' Biographies 19421962. New York: Elsevier.

Calvin, Melvin (1992). Following the Trail of Light: A Scientific Odyssey. Washington, DC: American Chemical Society.

Kauffman, George B., and Mayo, Isaac (1994). "Melvin Calvin's Trail of Light." The World & I 9(5):206213.

Kauffman, George B., and Mayo, Isaac (1996). "Multidisciplinary ScientistMelvin Calvin: His Life and Work." Journal of Chemical Education 73(5):412416.

Calvin, Melvin

views updated May 29 2018


CALVIN, MELVIN (1912–1997), U.S. biochemist and Nobel Prize winner. Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, to parents who had emigrated from Russia, he received his B.S. in chemistry in 1931 from the Michigan College of Mining and Technology and his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Minnesota in 1935. He spent 1935–37 as a fellow of the Rockefeller Foundation at the University of Manchester in England, where he studied with Michael *Polanyi. Calvin began his academic career at the University of California at Berkeley in 1937, becoming director of the bio-organic division of the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in 1946, professor of chemistry in 1947, and in 1960, director of the biodynamics laboratory. Calvin began his work on photosynthesis in the mid-1940s. He used carbon-14 isotope as a radioactive tracer to study photosynthesis – the process whereby living plants convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into sugars under the influence of sunlight and chlorophyll. For his elucidation of reactions in this vital process, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1961. His research also included work in radiation chemistry, the biochemistry of learning, processes leading to the origin of life, and using plant oils as a petroleum substitute. He worked with the Manhattan Project (for atomic fission) in 1944–45 and was on the U.S. delegation to the 1955 Geneva Conference on the peaceful uses of the President's Science Advisory Committee. He was the recipient of many awards and a member of numerous learned societies. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Society of London, and many others. His writings include Isotopic Carbon; Techniques in its Measurement and Chemical Manipulation (1949) and Path of Carbon in Photosynthesis (in collaboration with James Bassham, 1957).

[Samuel Aaron Miller /

Ruth Rossing (2nd ed.)

Calvin, Melvin

views updated May 23 2018

Calvin, Melvin (1911–97) US biochemist. After World War II, at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, Berkeley, he investigated the dark reactions of photosynthesis. Using radioactive carbon-14 to label carbon dioxide he discovered the Calvin cycle, for which he was awarded the 1961 Nobel Prize for chemistry.

Calvin, Melvin

views updated Jun 08 2018

Calvin, Melvin (1911–97) US chemist. He used radioactive carbon-14 as a trace to label carbon dioxide, and track the process by which plants turned it into glucose by means of photosynthesis. The series of reactions that take place during photosynthesis is known as the Calvin cycle. Calvin received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1961.

Melvin Calvin

views updated May 23 2018

Melvin Calvin


American biochemist who won the 1961 Nobel Prize for chemistry for elucidating the process of photosynthesis in plants. Calvin began work on photosynthesis in the 1940s, studying algae to determine the biochemical interactions by which water and carbon dioxide are transformed into carbohydrates and oxygen. By using the radioactive isotope carbon-14, he was able to identify the reactions involved in the different stages of photosynthesis.

Melvin Calvin

views updated May 23 2018

Melvin Calvin


American biochemist who first determined many of the chemical reactions that take place during photosynthesis. Using radioactive carbon-14, paper chromatography, and patience Calvin spent many years tracing the chemical processes that take place during photosynthesis. This helped to unravel one of the most important biochemical processes on Earth because most life depends either directly or indirectly on photosynthesis for food. Calvin was awarded the 1961 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work.