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 on Melvin Calvin

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).