C. B. van Niel

C. B. van Niel
Born Cornelis Bernardus van Niel
(1897-11-04)November 4, 1897
Haarlem, Netherlands
Died March 10, 1985(1985-03-10) (aged 87)
Carmel, California
Nationality USA, Netherlands
Alma mater TU Delft
Known for Chemistry of photosynthesis
Awards National Medal of Science (1963)
Leeuwenhoek Medal (1970)
Scientific career
Fields Microbiology
Institutions Hopkins Marine Station
Doctoral advisor Albert Kluyver
Doctoral students Roger Stanier

Cornelis Bernardus van Niel (November 4, 1897, Haarlem March 10, 1985, Carmel, California) was a Dutch-American microbiologist. He introduced the study of general microbiology to the United States and made key discoveries explaining the chemistry of photosynthesis.[1]

Early life

In 1923, Cornelis van Niel married Christina van Hemert, graduated in chemical engineering at Delft University and became an assistant to Albert Kluyver, who had initiated the field of comparative biochemistry. In 1928 he wrote his PhD dissertation ('The Propionic Acid Bacteria') after which he left for the United States to continue his work at the Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University.

Work and discoveries

Photosynthesis (1931)

By studying purple sulfur bacteria and green sulfur bacteria he was the first scientist to demonstrate, in 1931, that photosynthesis is a light-dependent redox reaction[2] in which hydrogen from an oxidizable compound reduces carbon dioxide to cellular materials. Expressed as:

2 H2A + CO2 2A + CH2O + H2O

where A is the electron acceptor. His discovery predicted that H2O is the hydrogen donor in green plant photosynthesis and is oxidized to O2. The chemical summation of photosynthesis was a milestone in the understanding of the chemistry of photosynthesis. This was later experimentally verified by Robert Hill.

In a nutshell, van Niel proved that plants give off oxygen as a result of splitting water molecules during photosynthesis, not carbon dioxide molecules as thought before.

Bacterial taxonomy

Van Niel also played a key role in the development of bacterial taxonomy.[1] In 1962, van Niel in collaboration with Roger Y. Stanier defined prokaryotes as cells in which the nuclear material is not surrounded by a nuclear membrane, a definition that is still used to date.[3]


Shortly after his arrival at Hopkins Marine Station, van Niel developed a course in general microbiology which was to become widely influential.[1] During its run from 1938 to 1962, the course drew students from around the world, and included several accomplished scientists among its alumni, including Esther Lederberg and Allan Campbell.[4][5] and Arthur Kornberg, the recipient of the 1959 Nobel prize for DNA synthesis.

Scientific legacy and awards

Van Niel was the first biologist to receive the American National Medal of Science;[6] he was awarded the 1963 Medal in biological sciences for "his fundamental investigations of the comparative biochemistry of microorganisms, for his studies of the basic mechanisms of photosynthesis, and for his excellence as a teacher of many scientists."[7] Additional awards include:

  • 1955: Marjory Stephenson Prize of the Society for General Microbiology
  • 1966: Charles F. Kettering Award of the American Society of Plant Biologists
  • 1967: Rumford Prize
  • 1970: Leeuwenhoek Medal

In 1950 van Niel became a correspondent of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.[8]

Selected publications

  • Stanier, R. Y.; van Niel, C. B. (1962). "The concept of a bacterium". Archiv für Mikrobiologie. 42: 17–35. doi:10.1007/BF00425185. PMID 13916221.


  1. 1 2 3 Barker, H. A.; Robert E Hungate (1990). "Cornelis Bernardus van Niel, 1897-1985 : a biographical memoir". In National Academy of Sciences (ed.). Biographical Memoirs (PDF). 59. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. pp. 388–423. ISBN 0309041988.
  2. van Niel, C.B (1931). On the morphology and physiology of the purple and green sulfur bacteria.
  3. Sapp, Jan A. (2009). The new foundations of evolution: on the tree of life. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-973438-2.
  4. Campbell, A. (2007). "Phage Integration and Chromosome Structure. A Personal History". Annual Review of Genetics. 41: 1–11. doi:10.1146/annurev.genet.41.110306.130240. PMID 17474874.
  5. Simon, Matthew. "Anecdotes". The Esther M. Zimmer Lederberg Trust. Retrieved 2012-01-30.
  6. Hopkins Marine Station. "History". Retrieved 2013-01-11.
  7. National Science Foundation. "US NSF - The President's National Medal of Science: Recipient Details". Retrieved 2013-01-11.
  8. "Cornelis Bernardus van Niel (1897 - 1985)". Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 4 August 2015.
  9. IPNI.  C.B.Niel.
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