Born in Saint Paul, Minnesota, the son of Russian immigrants, Calvin earned his Bachelor of Science from the Michigan College of Mining and Technology in 1931 and his Ph.D in cinemistry from the University of Minnesota in 1935. He then spent the next four years doing postdoctoral work at the University of Manchester. He married Genevieve Jemtegaard in 1942, and they had three children, two daughters and a son.
Calvin joined the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley as an instructor in 1937 and was promoted to Professor of Chemistry in 1947. In 1963 he was given the additional title of Professor of Molecular Biology. He was founder and Director of the Laboratory of Chemical Biodynamics and simultaneously Associate Director of Berkeley Radiation Laboratory, where he conducted much of his research until his retirement in 1980.
Using the carbon-14 isotope as a tracer, Calvin and his team mapped the complete route that carbon travels through a plant during photosynthesis, starting from its absorption as atmospheric carbon dioxide to its conversion into carbohydrates and other organic compounds. In doing so, the Calvin group showed that sunlight acts on the chlorophyll in a plant to fuel the manufacturing of organic compounds, rather than on carbon dioxide as was previously believed. In his final years of active research, he studied the use of oil-producing plants as renewable sources of energy. He also spent many years testing the chemical evolution of life and wrote a book on the subject that was published in 1969. Calvin also researched organic geochemistry, chemical carcinogenesis and analysis of moon rocks.
He served on the Science Advisory Committee under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and the Advisory Group to the Office of Science and Technology Policy of the Executive Office of the President. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, with which he was chairman of the Committee on Science and Public Policy, the Royal Society of London, the Japan Academy, and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences.
His awards included the National Medal of Science, which he received in 1989, the Priestly Medal from the American Chemical Society, the Davy Medal from the Royal Society of London, and the Gold Medal from the American Institute of Chemists.