Melvin Calvin

Melvin Ellis Calvin (April 8, 1911 – January 8, 1997)[3] was an American biochemist known for discovering the Calvin cycle along with Andrew Benson and James Bassham, for which he was awarded the 1961 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He spent most of his five-decade career at the University of California, Berkeley.

Melvin Calvin
Calvin in 1960
Melvin Ellis Calvin

April 8, 1911
DiedJanuary 8, 1997(1997-01-08) (aged 85)
NationalityUnited States
Alma materMichigan College of Mining and Technology
University of Minnesota
Known forCalvin cycle
Spouse(s)Genevieve Elle Jemtegaard (m. 1942; 3 children) (d. 1987)
AwardsNobel Prize for Chemistry (1961)
Davy Medal (1964)
Priestley Medal (1978)
AIC Gold Medal (1979)
National Medal of Science (1989)[1]
Scientific career
FieldsChemistry · Biology
InstitutionsUniversity of Manchester
University of California, Berkeley
Berkeley Radiation Laboratory
Science Advisory Committee
Academic advisorsMichael Polanyi
Doctoral studentsCyril Ponnamperuma[2]


Calvin was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, the son of Elias Calvin and Rose Herwitz,[4] immigrants from the Russian Empire.[5]

As a small child Calvin's family moved to Detroit; he graduated from Central High School in 1928.[6] Melvin Calvin earned his Bachelor of Science from the Michigan College of Mining and Technology (now known as Michigan Technological University) in 1931 and his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Minnesota in 1935. He then spent the next four years doing postdoctoral work at the University of Manchester. He married Marie Genevieve Jemtegaard in 1942,[4] and they had three children, two daughters and a son.

Calvin joined the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1937 and was promoted to Professor of Chemistry in 1947. Using the carbon-14 isotope as a tracer, Calvin, Andrew Benson and James Bassham 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.[7][8] In doing so, Calvin, Benson and Bassham 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 was the sole recipient of the 1961 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for what is sometimes known as the Calvin–Benson–Bassham Cycle. Calvin wrote an autobiography three decades later titled Following the Trail of Light: A Scientific Odyssey.[9] During the 1950s he was among the first members of the Society for General Systems Research. In 1963 he was given the additional title of Professor of Molecular Biology. He was founder and Director of the Laboratory of Chemical Biodynamics and simultaneously Associate Director of Berkeley Radiation Laboratory, where he conducted much of his research until his retirement in 1980. 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.[10]


In his 2011 television history of Botany for the BBC, Timothy Walker, Director of the University of Oxford Botanic Garden, criticised Calvin's treatment of Andrew Benson, claiming that Calvin had got the credit for Benson's work after firing him, and had failed to mention Benson's role when writing his autobiography decades later.[11] Benson himself has also mentioned being fired by Calvin, and has complained about not being mentioned in his autobiography.[12]

Honours and Legacy

Calvin was elected a foreign member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1958.[13] In 1959 he was elected a Member of the German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina.[14]

Calvin was featured on the 2011 volume of the American Scientists collection of US postage stamps, along with Asa Gray, Maria Goeppert-Mayer, and Severo Ochoa. This was the third volume in the series, the first two having been released in 2005 and 2008.


See also


  1. National Science Foundation – The President's National Medal of Science
  2. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on January 26, 2016. Retrieved January 21, 2016.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  3. Seaborg, G. T.; Benson, A. A. (2008). "Melvin Calvin. 8 April 1911 -- 8 January 1997". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 54: 59. doi:10.1098/rsbm.2007.0050.
  7. CALVIN, M (1956). "[The photosynthetic cycle.]". Bull. Soc. Chim. Biol. 38 (11) (published December 7, 1956). pp. 1233–44. PMID 13383309
  8. BARKER, S A; BASSHAM, J A; CALVIN, M; QUARCK, U C (1956). "Intermediates in the photosynthetic cycle". Biochim. Biophys. Acta. 21 (2) (published August 1956). pp. 376–7. doi:10.1016/0006-3002(56)90022-1. PMID 13363921
  9. Calvin, Melvin (1992). Following the Trail of Light: A Scientific Odyssey (Profiles, Pathways & Dreams) . Wiley VCH. ISBN 0-8412-1828-5.
  10. Calvin, Melvin. Chemical evolution: molecular evolution towards the origin of living systems on the earth and elsewhere. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969. ISBN 0-19-855342-0.
  11. Walker, Timothy (2011). "Botany: A Blooming History". BBC Four. BBC, UK. Retrieved June 17, 2014.
  12. Interview conducted by Bob B. Buchanan, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego (June 26–27, 2012). "Interview Transcript – A Conversation with Andrew Benson – "Reflections on the Discovery of the Calvin-Benson Cycle"" (PDF). University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved June 17, 2014. Page 25 – (24:51) BUCHANAN: So, would you use the word "fired?" (24:54) BENSON: Yeah. ... Page 30 – (30:04) BENSON: ... He published a book, an autobiography, Following the Trail of Light, which is a fantastic – a beautiful title for what it was about. It makes the whole volume about him getting a Nobel Prize, no mention of Benson at all in that book. And he didn't have to do that. He could have done it right. And finally, one of his last publications he mentioned – Dr. Benson and some graduate students were involved – but just briefly mentioned.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  13. "Melvin Calvin (1911 - 1997)". Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved October 5, 2016.
  14. "List of Members". Retrieved October 19, 2017.
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