Struggling with the Standard Model (1930–1941)

Part of the History, Philosophy and Theory of the Life Sciences book series (HPTL, volume 8)


Otto Warburg’s manometric approach dominated photosynthesis research in the 1930s. By then, a number of scientists of very different disciplinary backgrounds had turned to the field, including William Arnold, Robert Emerson, James Franck, Charles Stacy French, Hans Gaffron, Robin Hill and Cornelis B. van Niel. The chapter follows their “investigative pathways” in order to clarify: why they chose their particular focus and method of photosynthesis research; how they (frequently research-opportunistically) stumbled into the field; and how they interacted with other researchers and groups to coordinate their interests and activities. In contrast to earlier decades, the 1930s became a period in which a wealth of exciting new findings and conceptual ideas were amassed. Some of these stood in clear contradiction to the standard model of the mechanism: such as, for instance, the suggestion of “photosynthetic units”, consisting of 2000 chlorophyll molecules that acted in coordination; and the finding that isolated chloroplasts were able to produce oxygen without reducing carbon dioxide at the same time. Today, these are elements of the body of commonly accepted knowledge. However, at the time it proved extremely difficult to integrate them into a coherent whole. A range of different strategies were employed in order to come to terms with this situation, ranging from stark conservatism to radically new forms of conceptualising the process. Still, no consensus emerged.


Robert Emerson photosynthesis ⋅ James Franck photosynthesis ⋅ Photosynthetic unit ⋅ Generalised equation photosynthesis ⋅ Investigative pathways 

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.History of ScienceLMU MunichMunichGermany

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