Melvin Calvin, 1961 Nobelist and UC Berkeley professor, dies at age 85

by Kathleen Scalise

Berkeley -- Nobelist Melvin Calvin, a University of California at Berkeley chemistry professor and a leading scientist at the Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, died Wednesday (Jan. 8) at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley following years of declining health. He was 85.

Labeled "Mr. Photosynthesis" by Time magazine in 1961, Calvin was awarded the Nobel Prize for using radioactive carbon-14 to show steps by which plants turn carbon dioxide and water into sugar during photosynthesis. Today this process is known as the "Calvin Cycle" in photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the process by which plants capture energy from the sun.

"For many years, Melvin was a vital personality on the Berkeley campus who contributed greatly to science," said UC Berkeley Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien. "It is a sad occasion to lose such a colleague."

Calvin, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1961, was a University Professor of Chemistry. Born April 8, 1911, he retired in 1980, but continued his research until recently.

His findings sparked the U.S. Department of Energy's interest in solar energy as a source of power.

"Melvin's work was the cause of this agency starting its solar photochemical energy conversion research," said Allan Laufer, team leader with the Department of Energy Office of Basic Energy Sciences. "He showed converting energy from the sun into useful forms was scientifically possible. He was a very influential man."

"Since his appointment at Berkeley in 1937, Melvin influenced many areas of chemistry. It goes without saying that he became one of our most illustrious colleagues," said Paul Bartlett, chairman of the UC Berkeley chemistry department.

Fellow UC Berkeley Nobelist Glenn T. Seaborg said Calvin was a life-long friend. "I have known him for 60 years," said Seaborg. "He was a great scientist and an extraordinary human being."

The significance of Calvin's work "was that it was the first major application to use carbon-14 radioactive isotope as a tracer for a chemical pathway," said colleague Kenneth Sauer, who was a postdoctoral researcher with Calvin at the time he received the Nobel Prize.

Calvin also did work on organic geochemistry, chemical evolution, chemical carcinogenesis and analysis of moon rocks.

"He was a very, very curious man," said his daughter, Elin Sowle. "He loved to find things out. He taught me to be curious and he taught everyone around him to be curious."

Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, Calvin received his BS from the Michigan College of Mining and Technology in 1931 and his PhD in chemistry from the University of Minnesota in 1935.

After two years as a postdoctoral fellow in England, Calvin joined the UC Berkeley faculty as an instructor, becoming a professor in 1947. He formed the Bio-Organic Chemistry Group of the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in 1946.

He became director of the Laboratory of Chemical Biodynamics in 1960, an innovative interdisciplinary laboratory with projects ranging from solar energy to brain chemistry. In 1980 the laboratory was renamed the Melvin Calvin Laboratory in his honor.

Author of more than 500 scientific papers and seven books and the recipient of numerous tributes and honors, Calvin also served on the President's Science Advisory Committee under both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and was chairman of the Committee on Science and Public Policy at the National Academy of Sciences. He received the National Medal of Science from President George Bush in 1989.

Calvin is survived by two daughters, Elin Sowle of Berkeley and Karole Campbell of Inverness; a son, Noel Calvin of Palo Alto; a sister, Sandra Davis of Los Angeles; six grandchildren and two great grandchildren. His wife, Genevieve, died in 1987.

Funeral services are private, but a memorial service will be held on the UC Berkeley campus at a later date. The family requests that donations be made to the Melvin Calvin Memorial Fund, College of Chemistry, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720.

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