Kamen, Martin David, 1913-2002

Alternative names
Birth 1913-08-27
Death 2002-08-31

Biographical notes:

Professor of biochemistry, University of California, San Diego. Professor at University of California, Berkeley in the late 1930s.

From the description of Martin David Kamen papers : ms., [ca. 1937-1945]. (University of California, Berkeley). WorldCat record id: 122514517

Biochemist educated at the University of Chicago (B.A. 1933, Ph. D. 1936), co-discoverer of carbon-14, and prominent professor of biochemistry and researcher in photosynthesis, cytochromes, and radioactive tracers, successively affiliated with Lawerence Berkeley Laboratory, Washington University, Brandeis University, the University of Southern California, and the University of California, San Diego, where he was granted emeritus status in 1977.

In 1944, Kamen was classified a security risk for unstated reasons and banned from the Radiation Laboratory. In 1947, the United States government revoked his passport. In 1948 he was questioned in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee about the possibility he had divulged "atomic secrets" to the Soviet Union. These events, as well as the years of litigation they resulted in, are chronicled in Kamen's 1985 autobiography RADIANT SCIENCE, DARK POLITICS.

From the description of Papers, 1923-1992. (University of California, San Diego). WorldCat record id: 28746190


Martin David Kamen, the son of Russian emigrant Aaron Kamenetsky and Latvian or Lithuanian emigrant Goldie Achber, was born a U.S. citizen in Toronto, Canada, on August 27, 1913. Kamen received a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Chicago in 1933 and a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the same institution in 1936. He has been married to Esther Hudson (1938-1941), Beka Doherty, a journalist (1949-1963), and Virginia Swanson, a pathologist (1967-1987). Kamen is most widely known for his co-discovery of carbon-14, although for most of his career he has worked in the area of biochemistry focusing on mechanisms of photosynthesis.

On the advice of one of his mentors (David Gans), who had suggested that he continue his research in chemistry and nuclear physics at the E.O. Lawrence's Radiation Laboratory, Kamen set out for Berkeley immediately upon graduating from the University of Chicago in the winter of 1936. Kamen worked at the laboratory without pay for six months before E.O. Lawrence offered him a formal position, with a salary, overseeing the preparation and distribution of the cyclotron's radioactive products. Kamen's most distinguished contribution while at the Radiation Laboratory was his co-discovery, with University of California, Berkeley chemist Samuel Ruben, of carbon-14.

Kamen remained at the Radiation Laboratory until July, 1944, when he was summarily dismissed (without explanation) from the Manhattan Project and the laboratory. It was not until a full decade later that he learned conclusively that he had been blacklisted by the U.S. Army as a "security risk." Kamen's dismissal was followed by a year of reneged job offers in both academia and industry. In the spring of 1945 he was hired by Arthur Holly Compton to work in the medical school of Washington University running the cyclotron program. Teaching tracer methodology to the medical faculty and preparing radioactive tracer materials for their clinical research, Kamen's research interests gradually shifted away from nuclear physics and radiochemistry and more fully into biochemistry. With the publication in 1947 of his highly acclaimed text RADIOACTIVE TRACERS IN BIOLOGY, retitled in later editions as ISOTOPIC TRACERS IN BIOLOGY, Kamen ended his work on carbon-14.

In the next most significant phase of his research, Kamen focused on the mechanisms of photosynthesis in bacteria. It is this work for which he is most admired within the community of biochemists. His book on this subject is PRIMARY PROCESSES IN PHOTOSYNTHESIS (1963). In later research, regarding the comparative biochemistry of cytochromes, Kamen and his collaborators established the general occurrence of hematin compounds in all photosynthetic tissue and identified the physical and chemical structure of a large number of new cytochromes.

Kamen's pioneering work with radioactive tracers placed him in high demand as a conference participant in the international scientific community, as well as at home. It was, therefore, more than a mere inconvenience when the U.S. government revoked his passport in 1947, on the eve of a planned lecture tour of Palestine. After repeated attempts to regain his passport failed, Kamen engaged legal assistance in 1950. Even then, it took five more years of hearings, interventions on his behalf by colleagues and friends in government, and court action before his passport was reissued.

The struggle to regain his right to travel freely was important to Kamen and it took up a great deal of his time. It was not, however, the only diversion to occupy his energies outside the laboratory during the postwar years. With communism increasingly identified in the U.S. as an evil influence, Kamen's dismissal from the Radiation Laboratory seemed to some individuals, evidently highly placed, to carry a menacing significance. In 1948, he was called to testify before the House on Un-American Activities (HUAC) regarding the possibility that he had leaked "atomic secrets" to the Russians while employed on the Manhattan Project. Although he was cleared of those charges by the HUAC, the label "atomic spy" proved especially difficult to shake. In 1951, Kamen began libel suits against the Tribune Company, whose Chicago and Washington, D.C. newspapers carried front-page stories (July 7, 1951) identifying him as the "high atomic scientist" Senator Hickenlooper of Iowa had named in a speech as a "spy and a traitor." As with his passport, Kamen triumphed in the end, winning a $7,500 judgment against the Tribune Co. in 1955. These events, as well as his scientific research and musical life are chronicled by Kamen in his autobiography, RADIANT SCIENCE, DARK POLITICS.

In 1957 Kamen left Washington University at the invitation of Brandeis University to organize a graduate department of biochemistry. From Brandeis, Kamen went to La Jolla, California, where between 1961 and 1974 he helped Roger Revelle and others develop the sciences at the newly created University of California, San Diego campus. In the late 1960s, Kamen spent part of his time establishing a photosynthesis laboratory in Gif-sur-Yvette for the French National Center for Scientific Research. Between 1974-1978 he was an adjunct professor of chemistry at the University of Southern California. Kamen returned to UCSD in 1977 and became professor emeritus.

From the guide to the Martin David Kamen Papers, 1923 - 1992, (University of California, San Diego. Geisel Library. Mandeville Special Collections Library.)

Biographical notes are generated from the bibliographic and archival source records supplied by data contributors.


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Constellation Information



  • Photosynthesis
  • Science--Social aspects
  • Biochemists -- Biography
  • Science -- Social aspects
  • Chemistry -- Research
  • Security clearances -- United States
  • Radioactive tracers
  • Internal security
  • Loyalty oaths
  • Radiocarbon dating
  • Science and state -- History
  • Biochemists--Biography
  • Biochemistry
  • Security clearances
  • Cytochromes
  • Internal security -- United States
  • Science and state--History
  • Chemistry--Research


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  • United States (as recorded)