US Postage Stamp Recognizes Alumnus Who Won a Nobel Prize

By John Gagnon | Published

Alumnus Melvin Calvin's postage stamp
Alumnus Melvin Calvin's postage stamp

Melvin Calvin, a Michigan Tech alumnus who was awarded a Nobel Prize, now has his name and face on a postage stamp--a stamp of approval for a distinguished man.

Calvin was the first scientist to unravel the secrets of photosynthesis—knowledge that became known as “the Calvin cycle.” That work won him and a colleague the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1961. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded since 1901. A total of 159 people have been named laureates. Calvin joined the ranks of Marie Curie and Linus Pauling.

Now he is memorialized on a 44-cent postage stamp.

Over the years, stamps—the first one cost a penny—have featured people, events and milestones. The people have included presidents, famous Americans, and now, for the third time, scientists. This latest issue, dated June 16, 2011, also features a botanist, a physicist, and a biochemist.

The new commemorative "forever stamp” has two photos of Calvin, one from 1948 in bold, one from 1970 as a backdrop; equations from his research; and a signature from a 1961 letter.

Calvin, son of Russian émigrés, liked working with emigrants and was a devout believer in interdisciplinary collaboration . He worked with scientists on both sides of chemistry: physics and biology. The lab he worked in at Berkeley now bears his name.  As does the highest honor that Michigan Tech bestows: The Melvin Calvin Medal of Distinction. He received the first one, in 1985, in connection with the University’s centennial. Since then, six others have been awarded.

Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1911,Calvin received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the Michigan College of Mining and Technology in 1931 and a PhD in chemistry from the University of Minnesota in 1935. He began his academic career in 1937 at the University of California at Berkeley, where he stayed for the remainder of his career. He died in 1997.

Calvin’s research ranged as far as his imagination: chemical evolution and organic geochemistry,  photochemistry, artificial photosynthesis, radiation chemistry, brain chemistry, the molecular basis of learning, and the philosophy of science. In his last years, he studied the use of oil-producing plants as renewable sources of energy.

He wrote two books and co-authored another four. He was a member of six learned societies around the world and held honorary doctoral degrees from Michigan Tech, Northwestern University, the University of Nottingham, and Oxford University. Calvin was the recipient of many other honors, including the National Medal of Science from President Bush, as well as prestigious awards from the American Chemical Society; the Royal Society of London; and the American Institute of Chemists.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.