The Maximum Quantum Yield Controversy (1937–1955)

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


The productive line of research that dominated the 1930s was slowed down by a long and acrimonious controversy about the maximum quantum yield, or, conversely, the minimum quantum requirement, of photosynthesis. This value had become the central empirical parameter for validating models of the mechanism and deciding between alternatives. The debate started in the late 1930s, when American research groups found a minimum requirement of 8 to 12 quanta for the photosynthetic production of oxygen. This was incompatible with the standard value of four to five, which had been proposed by Otto Warburg back in 1923. The resulting controversy lasted until the mid-1950s and involved many of the major players: on the one side Otto Warburg and some associates; on the other side Robert Emerson together with Hans Gaffron, James Franck and others. The controversy finally faded when other, more promising methods were developed and the parameter became less important. In contrast to the mostly cooperative heuristics explored in earlier chapters, this serves as an example of how a research community reacted to a persistent—and increasingly destructive—disagreement between central actors.


Otto Warburg photosynthesis Photosynthesis controversy quantum yield Robert Emerson photosynthesis James Franck photosynthesis Scientific controversy 

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.History of ScienceLMU MunichMunichGermany

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