Calvin Photosynthesis Group Subject of History Project

August 30, 1996

By Jeffery Kahn, [email protected]


Melvin Calvin, who was awarded the 1961 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for having unraveled the path of carbon in photosynthesis, retired from full-time activity at this Lab and UC Berkeley in 1980.
Melvin Calvin
Calvin in his laboratory
Now 85-years-of-age and frail, Calvin led the Bio-Organic Chemistry Group which is the current subject of an oral history project.

Vivian Moses, Visiting Professor of Biotechnology at King's College in London, and his wife Sheila, an editor who worked for some years at the Institute of International Studies in Berkeley, began the project about a year ago. When it is complete, probably by Fall 1997, UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library will be a repository for copies of all the tapes and the transcripts.

For Vivian Moses, the project is a natural. In 1956, he was a postdoc with the Calvin group during its historic photosynthesis project. Moses left in 1958 and then in 1960, returned for an 11-year-stint as a staff scientist with the Calvin group.

The Moses are focusing on the years 1945-63 and plan to interview 50 to 60 former group members all over the United States and Europe. They have already taped conversations with 36 people, including Calvin himself, Martin Kamen (who, with Sam Ruben, in 1940 discovered carbon-14 using the Radiation Laboratory's 60-Inch Cyclotron), Andy Benson, Al Bassham, Dick Lemmon and Ed Bennett. They have access to transcripts of a series of interviews Calvin gave some 15 years ago which are already in the Bancroft.

Calvin's photosynthesis work began in 1945. On the day the Japanese surrendered, Ernest Lawrence told Calvin that it was "time to do something useful" with carbon-14. Located within the Rad Lab yet always maintaining close links with Chemistry, Calvin set about organizing a team of researchers to solve the riddle of photosynthesis. Developing the new tracer technology as they went, he and his team traced the paths that carbon-14 travels through a plant during photosynthesis, starting from its absorption as labeled atmospheric carbon dioxide to its conversion into carbohydrates and other organic compounds. In resolving the many intermediate steps in the process, the Calvin team showed that, rather than acting directly on carbon dioxide as had been believed previously, sunlight energy is first captured by the plant's chlorophyll, ultimately to fuel the synthesis of organic compounds.

The group was fortunate to inherit ORL (the Old Radiation Laboratory), a wooden building dating from 1885 that was Lawrence's
The old Radiation Laboratory
original laboratory and where he designed and built his 37-inch cyclotron. Torn down in 1959, the "laboratory without walls" stood on what is now the site of Latimer Hall. The fortuitous open-plan intimacy of ORL inspired the Calvin group's later design for a new building. Opened in November 1963, the new Calvin Laboratory with its open aspect and radial lab benches fostered and actually catalyzed interaction among the people who worked in it.

The group remains famous for its remarkable record of interdisciplinary collaboration. Comments Moses, "It included biologists, chemists, and physicists. We think it may have been first major multidisciplinary group in the biological sciences anywhere in the world. It was a remarkably harmonious organization: Calvin's scientific leadership, Ernest Lawrence's stewardship, the quality of the scientists, the excitement of the project, adequate funding -- all were significant factors contributing to success".

Another favorable factor was the age of the group members. "They were all young," notes Moses. "In 1945, Calvin, the undisputed leader at 34, was probably the oldest in the group. There was no jockeying for position in a hierarchy. Looking back, the collaboration was remarkable. Everyone interviewed so far treasures very fond memories and has been enthusiastic in recalling the excitement of the time."

After receiving the 1961 Nobel Prize, Calvin established the Laboratory's Chemical Biodynamics Division, which he directed for 20 years. Upon his retirement, the unique, circular three-story laboratory which he had built to house his group on the Berkeley campus was renamed the Melvin Calvin Laboratory. Chemical Biodynamics was the predecessor to today's Structural Biology Division.

Moses said he hopes those with memories of the Calvin project will contact him. Moses can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]. The Calvin project is supported by the Chemistry Department at UC Berkeley, the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, and the Royal Society and Gresham College, both in London. The UC Office for the History of Science and Technology and the Oral History Unit of the Bancroft Library are collaborators.