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C&EN Special Issue: 85th Anniversary Of The Priestley Medal - Volume 86, Number 14, April 7, 2008

1978: Melvin Calvin (1911–1997)

Walking across the University of California, Berkeley, campus, one is likely to come across the “Round House,” or Calvin Laboratory, an architectural testament to one scientist’s vision of the research process. Built during the early 1960s, the building housed Melvin Calvin’s research group for about half his career at UC Berkeley. Formally named the Laboratory for Chemical Biodynamics, the group operated there in an open lab environment designed to foster discussion and cooperation among scientists from different disciplines.

In his 1992 autobiography, “Following the Trail of Light: A Scientific Odyssey,” Calvin described how “one of the first and foremost interdisciplinary labs in the world” helped translate his vision for conducting research. “There is no such thing as pure science,” he wrote. “By this I mean that physics impinges on astronomy on the one hand and chemistry and biology on the other. The synthesis of a really new concept requires some sort of union in one mind of the pertinent aspects of several disciplines.”

Calvin is remembered for bridging physics, chemistry, and biology to delineate the pathway of photosynthesis. He received the 1961 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his role in deciphering how plants use chlorophyll and sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates. In his 1978 Priestley Medal address, Calvin described his lifelong interest in artificial photosynthesis for solar energy conversion and the exploration of plants as sources of hydrocarbon fuels and chemical feedstocks.

Calvin followed a conventional career path to his custom-designed lab. He received a B.S. degree from Michigan College of Mining & Technology in 1931 and a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Minnesota in 1935. After a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Manchester, in England, Calvin was invited to join the UC Berkeley chemistry faculty in 1937 as an instructor. He became a full professor in 1947, and from 1963 until his retirement in 1980 he was also a professor of molecular biology.

While in Manchester, Calvin developed an interest in coordinated metal compounds, particularly metalloporphyrins, such as chlorophyll, and in photochemistry. After arriving in California, his thinking turned to theoretical aspects of organic structures, including the origins of color. The combination of these interests fed directly into the challenge of understanding photosynthesis.

In 1945, Ernest O. Lawrence, director of the radiation laboratory at UC Berkeley, suggested to Calvin that it was “time to do something worthwhile” with radioactive 14C. The long-lived isotope had been discovered in 1940 in Berkeley’s cyclotron. By early 1946, Calvin had put together a research proposal for a new interdisciplinary bioorganic chemistry group. The group was then housed in Lawrence’s Old Radiation Laboratory, described as a decrepit wooden structure that contained a large space without internal walls—Calvin’s first “open” lab.

The group would take advantage of available 14C as its principal tool in tracing out a chemical pathway. Calvin and collaborators followed the uptake over time and successive path of 14C through the photosynthetic cycle in algae using analytical methods, such as paper chromatography and radiographs. To determine the complex stepwise reactions, reaction end-products were laboriously extracted and identified.

Calvin’s colleagues have described his fearless nature for pursuing novel ideas, his skill in asking important questions, and his willingness to venture into new fields. During his career, he explored hot atom chemistry, carcinogenesis, organic geochemistry, immunochemistry, and even the analysis of moon rocks as part of the search for and understanding of possible lunar life.

In 1980, after retiring and having been as associate director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, he continued to serve as an adviser to numerous government agencies and scientific organizations while maintaining a small research group until 1996.—Ann Thayer

More On This Topic

  • 85th Anniversary of the Priestley Medal
  • Introduction
  • C&EN celebrates the American Chemical Society's highest honor
  • Priestley's Medals
  • The medals of the minister-scientist who discovered oxygen attest to his fame and infamy
  • The Priestley Medalists, 1923-2008
  • View a complete list of award recipients
  • Living History
  • These 12 Priestley Medal winners reflect on winning ACS's most coveted award
Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society

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More On This Topic

  • 85th Anniversary of the Priestley Medal
  • Introduction
  • C&EN celebrates the American Chemical Society's highest honor
  • Priestley's Medals
  • The medals of the minister-scientist who discovered oxygen attest to his fame and infamy
  • The Priestley Medalists, 1923-2008
  • View a complete list of award recipients
  • Living History
  • These 12 Priestley Medal winners reflect on winning ACS's most coveted award