Later at the age of 12, when they lived in an apartment over their grocery store, Melvin performed his first scientific experiment. He and his friend, Abe Becker, were playing in Abe’s back yard, chasing grasshoppers. They caught one, and upon finding a little pan of water, they put the grasshopper in it. The grasshopper swam, kicked, at which time the boys wondered what would happen if they held him under the water. They did so, until the kicking stopped. Then they placed him on a piece of paper to let dry in the sun. In a just a few minutes, he woke up and hopped away. They didn’t understand! This insect supposedly drowned only to recover upon drying out. Obviously, insects don't breathe the way we do. Melvin explains the result this way: "I still wonder about this phenomenon and can only rationalize it today in terms of oxygen deprivation leading to temporary deprivation of nerve and muscle function. But the grasshopper, unlike the human, does not lose nerve function merely upon oxygen deprivation for a short time.”
High School Years, 1924-1927
By the time the family moved to Detroit, he was old enough to attend high school. His father made the move because of the boom in the automobile industry. His father took a job with the Cadillac Motor Car Company as a mechanic. Years later, Melvin said of his father's work, “Neither of my parents went to college. However, my father was a very talented auto mechanic and this gave him great pleasure; I believe he was very happy with his work at that time.”
While still in high school, he worked at a local grocery store. During his limited spare time, Melvin realized how everything he did there depended on chemistry and chemists. The food, the paper around the cans, the dyes in the paper for labels, boxes, and the cans and boxes themselves - all of this made him understand the importance of chemistry in his daily life. This is what made him to decide to make chemistry his profession.
Melvin started his college
education at the Michigan College of Mining and Technology (now Michigan
Technical University). His
went there because the college was just expanding its curriculum
to include all of technology and science.
The school established a scholarship for every high school in
Michigan. Each high school
was to determine which student had the best grades, then offer that
student the scholarship.
It so happened that Melvin was second ranked in his high school, and his best friend (Abraham Becker) ranked first in their graduating class. “Abe” had already committed to going to medical school, so the scholarship was offered to Melvin. This was quite appropriate for Melvin, for he had already decided on a career in Chemistry.
Melvin recalled that “Because I was their first student in chemistry, their chemical curriculum was rather limited…. In fact, because there was a very limited curriculum in chemistry, I found that it was necessary for me to fill in my curriculum with other courses, primarily mineralogy, geology, and paleontology. I even tool a summer course in civil engineering, which I found very interesting. The effect of this non-chemical undergraduate period has never left me, and I am very happy (in fact, I think I was fortunate) to have such a diverse experience.” Later, when he was working on the photosynthesis problem, he appreciated the need to look at the problem in a variety of ways and use a variety of approaches to solve the problem.