Melvin Calvin, Biochemist


Melvin Calvin, Biochemist

Calvin Residence: 2683 Buena Vista Way
Melvin Calvin Laboratory: UC Campus

On September 2, 1945, the day the Japanese surrendered in the Pacific, Earnest O. Lawrence, the head of the Berkeley Radiation Lab, turned to his brilliant biochemist collaborator, Melvin Calvin, and famously pronounced that “now is the time to do something useful with radioactive carbon.” The next 15 years witnessed Calvin’s remarkable series of experiments that were said to unlock the mysteries of photosynthesis. This culminated in a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1961, the year Time magazine dubbed Calvin “Mr. Photosynthesis.”

Born in 1911 to a Lithuanian father and Russian mother, Calvin received his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. A scientist of exceptional curiosity, he spent several formative years at the University of Manchester working with Michael Polanyi, a firm believer in the interdisciplinary approach to science; it was here that Calvin formulated theoretical aspects of the structure and behavior of organic molecules.

Calvin ingeniously found a method (using Carbon-14 as a tracer) for charting the path of carbon molecules in photosynthesis: the process during which plants capture energy from sunlight, absorb water and carbon dioxide from the air and convert these into carbohydrates and other compounds. Calvin’s discovery became known as the “Calvin-Benson-Bassham cycle.”

In 1937, Calvin joined the UC Berkeley faculty, becoming a full professor ten years later. In 1959, the old Cyclotron Building in which he had worked was torn down. A new round lab with no interior walls, designed by Michael Goodman, was built in 1963. Initially known as both the “Roundhouse” and then “Calvin’s Carousel,” it was renamed the Calvin Lab in 1980. Reflecting his interdisciplinary leanings, Calvin staffed it with physicists, biologists, and chemists.

Calvin’s many prizes included the Davy and Priestly medals. He prolifically wrote over 600 articles and seven books, including Theory of Organic Chemistry (1940) and The Path of Carbon in Photosynthesis (1957). Calvin did varied research in fields including brain chemistry, chemical carcinogenesis, and moon rock analysis; he also worked on the Manhattan Project during WWII. His studies eventually sparked the U.S. Department of Energy’s research into solar power as a renewable energy source. In 1942 Calvin married Genevieve Jemtegaard with Glen Seaborg as best man. They had two daughters and a son.

Contributed by James Samuels, 2014

  • Calvin Residence, 2683 Buena Vista Way, photo (2014) R. Kehlmann

  • Calvin Lab on UC campus, photo Simmons Institute

  • Calvin in Old Radiation Lab, photo LBL Collection

  • Calvin US postage stamp (2011)

Photo credit abbreviations:
BAHA: Berkeley Architectural Heritage Assn.
BHS: Berkeley Historical Society