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Melvin Calvin, Who Unraveled the Secrets of Photosynthesis, Dies

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By Lynn Yarris,

January 9, 1997

BERKELEY, CA -- One of Berkeley Lab's greatest scientists, Melvin Calvin, the man who unlocked the secrets of photosynthesis, died on Wednesday afternoon (January 8) in Berkeley, after years of failing health. He was 85.

Melvin Calvin
Calvin in his laboratory
A member of the faculty at UC Berkeley since 1937, and one of the first chemists to join Ernest O. Lawrence's Radiation Laboratory, Calvin received the 1961 Nobel prize in chemistry for identifying the path of carbon in photosynthesis. Shortly thereafter he established the Chemical Biodynamics Division, the successor to today's Structural Biology Division, which he directed for 20 years. Throughout his distinguished career, Calvin was the recipient of a great many awards and honors, including the National Medal of Science, which he received from President Bush in 1989, the Priestly Medal from the American Chemical Society, the Davy Medal from the Royal Society of London, and the Gold Medal from the American Institute of Chemists.

Calvin was born on April 8, 1911 in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He earned his undergraduate degrees from the Michigan College of Mining and Technology in 1931 and his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Minnesota in 1935. Following post-doctoral studies in England, Calvin was invited to join the UCB faculty by the illustrious chemist Gilbert Lewis who introduced him to Lawrence. According to legend, on the day of the Japanese surrender, Lawrence told Calvin that "Now is the time to do something useful with radioactive carbon," the isotope of carbon that had been discovered in 1940 at the 60-Inch Cyclotron. In response, Calvin organized a team of Rad Lab researchers to study photosynthesis -- the process by which green plants convert sunlight energy into chemical energy.

Using the carbon-14 isotope as a tracer, Calvin 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 organic compounds. In doing so, the Calvin group showed that sunlight acts on the chlorophyll in a plant to fuel the manufacturing of organic compounds, rather than on carbon dioxide as was previously believed.

Calvin's work in deciphering the role of carbon in photosynthesis led to a lifelong interest in adapting photosynthetic techniques for energy production. In his final years of active research, he studied the use of oil-producing plants as renewable sources of energy. He also spent many years testing the chemical evolution of life and wrote a book on the subject that was published in 1969.

Like Lawrence, Calvin was a devout believer in interdisciplinary collaborations. For his photosynthesis research, he and his group worked in the wooden building that had served as Lawrence's original Radiation Laboratory. When this turn-of-the-century structure was torn down in 1959, its "laboratory without walls" concept inspired Calvin in the unique design of a new building on the Berkeley campus to house his group. Opened in 1963, the three-story construction featured a distinctive doughnut-shaped exterior and an open interior with radial lab benches, all of which were intended to foster the cooperative teamwork that Calvin preached and practiced. Upon his retirement in 1980, the building, which houses the Lab's Structural Biology Division researchers today, was renamed the Melvin Calvin Laboratory.

One of Calvin's last visits to the Hill was in October 1995, when as a tribute to his accomplishments, the Laboratory named one of its nine roads in his honor.

Calvin is survived by two daughters, Elin Sowie and Karole Campbell, and a son, Noel, six grandchildren and two great grandchildren. His wife of 36 years, Genevieve Elle Calvin, died in 1987. Services will be announced.

Additional Information: Calvin's Acceptance Speech at the 1961 Nobel Prize ceremony, the Presentation of the Award, the biography submitted by Calvin to the Nobel Committee, and additional photos.

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