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Postdoctoral Education, 1935-1937

Professor Michael Polanyi had come to Great Britain because, like so many others at the time, he was fleeing from Hitler in the early 1930’s (see also Hans Krebs' story).  Polanyi took an interdisciplinary approach to science, as his mind (very much like Melvin’s mind) was always curious about how all things worked.

The first experiment that Melvin participated in was an investigation of the  platinum-hydrogen bond, which, as it turned out, was not a simple reaction at all.  While they were working on this problem, Polanyi pointed out to Melvin that many biological reactions were completed using a porphyrin molecule, including a related compound, chlorophyll (the chemical that traps light energy in plants and makes leaves green). [The plot thickens]. This meant that Melvin would have to find some porphyrin molecules that could be used to study hydrogen activation much in the same way as their experiments with platinum.  Finally Professor Polanyi found out that an organic chemist in London discovered how to create a synthetic porphyrin that was much more stable than biological porphyrins. So Melvin was sent to London to find out how to make and purify this exciting compound.  The work on this experiment continued on even after Melvin became an instructor at the University of California, Berkeley in 1937.

University of California at Berkeley, 1937-1961

Melvin came to California as a result of Berkeley’s Professor Joel Hildebrand.  Professor Polanyi knew that it was time for Melvin to return to America and most probably talked with Professor Hildebrand about Melvin’s exemplary level of commitment and quality work.  Melvin was offered a position at Berkeley, being the first person that had not graduated from that institution to be hired at that level since 1912.

Melvin’s first task was to coordinate the departmental research conference each week.  Having to coordinate these weekly meetings was a chore that was good for Melvin because it forced him to get to know all the professors and graduate students, and vice versa. This helped Melvin appreciate how others could help him in his research and he teamed up with a variety of people in his long quest to figure out the photosynthetic process. Later, he would design a new research building with labs arranged in a circle, to encourage better communication among people working on various projects in different labs.

 

Melvin became engaged to Genevieve Jemtegaard and in October of 1942, he asked his best friend Glenn Seaborg (who later discovered plutonium) to be their Best Man at the wedding.  While in London, Melvin didn’t just work, he found time to socialize and enjoy life.  While Professor Lewis worked one-on-one with Melvin, he and his wife also entertained the new staff members in their home, quite frequently.  Also, the Lewis’ and the Calvin’s participated in the drama section of the faculty club, where faculty and/or their wives would perform as actors in various plays.  Melvin and his wife thoroughly enjoyed these activities.

In 1949 Melvin had quite a scare!  He had a heart attack (thankfully in the same room as two famous doctors, one of whom fathered the ideas of LDL and HDL serum lipoproteins and our current dietary recommendations).  Melvin was thirty-eight years old at this time and his father and uncle had died of heart attacks at the age of thirty-seven.  So he knew he had some bad genes. Thankfully and against great odds, Melvin, with Genevieve's help and encouragement, lost 50 pounds, quit smoking, and after a year’s rest, he continued the work he set out to accomplish.  Clearly Melvin Calvin was intent upon surviving! He was too close to finishing his life's mission to be stopped now.


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