Childhood & Early Life
He was born on April 8, 1911, in St. Paul, Minnesota, to Jewish immigrants Elias Calvin and Rose Herwitz, who originally hailed from the Russian Empire.
His family relocated to Detroit, Michigan when he was very small. In 1928 he completed his graduation from ‘Central High School’, Detroit.
After receiving a full scholarship from ‘Michigan College of Mining and Technology’ (at present ‘Michigan Technological University’) in Houghton, he joined the college and studied geology, mineralogy, civil engineering and paleontology. All these subjects proved to be extremely beneficial for his future scientific endeavours.
His studies got interrupted for a year during the Great Depression that saw him working in a brass factory as an analyst. He finally earned his B.Sc. degree from ‘Michigan College of Mining and Technology’ in 1931.
In 1935 he obtained Ph.D in chemistry from the ‘University of Minnesota’ submitting his thesis on electron affinity of halogen atoms.
Thereafter he received a ‘Rockefeller Foundation’ grant following which he pursued his postdoctoral work at the ‘University of Manchester’. There he came under the guidance of Professor Michael Polanyi under whom he researched on metalloporphyrins, activation of molecular hydrogen and coordination catalysis.
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In 1937 he was inducted as an instructor at the ‘University of California’, Berkeley. His career path in the university saw a gradual rise first advancing as a Full Professor in 1947 and then as a Professor of Molecular Biology in 1963, a post he retained till his retirement in 1980.
He carried on with his research on activation of molecular hydrogen at Berkeley that he started at Manchester and started studying colour of organic compounds that led him to investigate the electronic structures of organic molecules.
While investigating molecular genetics during the early 1940s, he suggested involvement of hydrogen bonding in the piling of nucleic acid bases in the thread like structures called chromosomes, present in the nucleus of living organisms.
With the entry of the US in the ‘Second World War’, Calvin worked for the ‘National Defense Research Council’. During the war he researched on cobalt complexes which generate an oxygen producing device for destroyers or submarines by reverse bonding with oxygen.
His development of the procedure to procure oxygen from atmospheres proved to be extremely significant for application on patients suffering from breathing problems.
His contribution in the ‘Manhattan Project’, the wartime research and development project to develop atomic bombs included working on separating and purifying plutonium from uranium’s other irradiated nuclear fission products by using chelation and solvent extraction.
In 1946 he became the founder-director of an inter-disciplinary bio-organic chemistry group, which at that time was housed in ‘Lawrence Radiation Laboratory’. Thus the old dilapidated wooden structure devoid of any internal walls became his first open laboratory. He also served as the Associate Director of the ‘Lawrence Radiation Laboratory’ till his retirement in 1980 and carried out many of his significant research works there.
His Nobel Prize winning research that he initiated in 1946 encompassed elucidating the way plants make use of sunlight and chlorophyll to metamorphose water and carbon dioxide into the biological molecule, carbohydrate.
Calvin along with his collaborators James Bassham and Andrew Benson applied the radioactive isotope carbon-14 to trace out the entire track travelled by the chemical element carbon through a plant at the time of photosynthesis. The tracer technique was elucidated by them in ‘Isotopic Carbon’ (1949).
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They displayed that it is the action of sunlight on the chlorophyll of a plant not on carbon dioxide, as was earlier perceived, that triggers the development of organic compounds.
While investigating, he suspended a green algae, chlorella, into water after which it was exposed to light followed by addition of carbon dioxide containing carbon-14 to it. A new research device, paper chromatography was applied to trace existence of carbon-14 while the algae underwent its life process generating carbohydrates from water, carbon dioxide and minerals.
Thus it became possible to ascertain the compounds that contain radioactive carbon at different steps of photosynthesis. Such findings were detailed in the books ‘The Path of Carbon in Photosynthesis’ (1957) and ‘The Photosynthesis of Carbon Compounds’ (1962).
As the bioorganic group of Calvin required more space, the ‘Laboratory of Chemical Biodynamics’ was developed in the campus of the ‘University of California’, Berkeley in the early 1960s. This circular building that is characterised with open labs and a number of windows with few walls, referred as the ‘Roundhouse’ or ‘Calvin Carousel’, which was designed by Calvin himself, is an architectural manifestation of his vision. He remained Director of the lab till his retirement in 1980 following which the lab was rechristened as ‘Melvin Calvin Laboratory’. Post retirement he used to come to his office and worked with a small team of researchers until 1996.
From 1963 to 1964 he served as President of the ‘American Society of Plant Physiologists’.
In 1964 the ‘Dow Chemical Company’ inducted him as a member of its Board of Directors. He was part of many scientific boards of the US government including the ‘Science Advisory Committee’ of the President that he served twice for President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson.
In 1971 he was made the President of the ‘American Chemical Society’.
He was a member of the ‘Royal Society of London’ and the ‘National Academy of Sciences’.
Calvin was conferred honorary D.Sc. degrees from ‘Oxford University’, ‘University of Nottingham’, ‘Northwestern University’ and ‘Michigan College of Mining and Technology’.
On May 1992, the ‘American Chemical Society’ published his autobiography titled ‘Following the Trail of Light: A Scientific Odyssey’.
He had written over 600 articles and 7 books.