Martin Kamen, Who Discovered Carbon-14 Here, Wins Fermi Award

December 15, 1995

By Lynn Yarris,

Martin Kamen, the chemist who used the 60-Inch Cyclotron in the days of the Radiation Laboratory to create carbon-14 and change biochemistry research forever, has been named one of two winners of this year's Enrico Fermi Award.

The 82-year old Kamen is joined by 83-year-old physicist Ugo Fano, who won for his pioneering contributions to the theory of atomic and radiation physics.

The Fermi award, which was announced by President Clinton on Dec. 12, is the nation's oldest prize for achievements in science and technology. It is granted for lifetime achievements in the field of nuclear energy. Winners receive a gold medal and a $100,000 honorarium. In winning the award, Kamen joins a list that includes two of his colleagues from the Rad Lab--Glenn Seaborg and Luis Alvarez.

Kamen is currently professor emeritus at both UC San Diego and the University of Southern California. During the 1950s and '60s, he cemented his claims to scientific greatness with his ground-breaking research in the field of bacterial cytochromes and photosynthesis. However, it was his discovery of carbon-14, the radioisotope of carbon used to trace biochemical pathways and mechanisms and to date archeological and anthropological objects, that proved to be the source of his brightest and darkest moments.

Born in Toronto, Canada, in 1913, Kamen earned his B.S. and Ph.D. degrees in chemistry and physical chemistry from the University of Chicago. After completing his doctoral research on neutron scattering, he began his career in 1937 as a radiochemist with the legendary group under Ernest O. Lawrence at the Rad Lab. Kamen was interested in studying plant photosynthesis and the related problem of carbon dioxide assimilation. In 1938, working with the late UC chemist Samuel Ruben, Kamen demonstrated that water is the source of molecular oxygen in photosynthesis and not carbon dioxide. This work had been accomplished through the use of carbon-11, which was the only radiocarbon known at that time. Kamen, however, was frustrated by that tracer's short half-life (21 minutes) and set out to find a radioisotope of carbon that would be better suited for biochemistry. In 1940, again working with Ruben, Kamen used the 60-Inch Cyclotron to bombard a graphite target with a beam of deuterium nuclei. The result was carbon-14, which, with a half-life of 5,000 years, allowed biochemists to trace carbon's movement through photosynthesis, metabolism, and a host of other biochemical processes.

Kamen's resulting scientific prominence, however, coupled with his liberal viewpoints and association with leftist intellectuals, brought him under the scrutiny of government agencies, including the FBI. In July 1944 he was declared a security risk and Lawrence was forced to dismiss him. A few years later, Kamen was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee and his passport was revoked. He spent 10 years in the courts before finally clearing his name and winning back his passport. He also won settlements against the Washington Times-Herald and Chicago Tribune newspapers for publishing libelous articles about him.