Rabinowitch, Eugene (1901-1973) | University of Illinois Archives

Name: Rabinowitch, Eugene (1901-1973)

Historical Note:

Eugene I. Rabinowitch (1901-1973) was professor of botany and biophysics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) from 1947 to 1968. He is renowned as a founding figure of modern biophysics and for his pioneering work in photosynthesis and nuclear energy.

Rabinowitch was born Evgenii Isaakovich Rabinovich in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on April 26, 1901. He studied chemistry at St. Petersburg University before leaving Russia with his family in 1918 to escape the revolution and Jewish persecution. He earned his PhD in chemistry from the University of Berlin in 1925. Publications from his time in Germany focused on chemistry and physics and included History and Theory of the Periodic System (coauthor Erich Thilo, 1930). As a research assistant at the University of Goettingen in Germany (1929-33), Rabinowitch worked with 1925 Nobel laureate for physics James Franck, and he discovered the cage effect (or the Franck-Rabinowitch effect), which explained "how the properties of a molecule are affected by its surroundings" (Govindjee).

When Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933, Rabinowitch's fellowship was rescinded, and he moved to Copenhagen, Denmark, where he worked with Nobel laureate Niels Bohr. During this time, Rabinowitch developed his cross-beam method which involved the "dissociation of iodine and bromine molecules by light" (Govindjee). He later used the method to determine the photochemical steps in photosynthesis. After six months, Rabinowitch relocated to London, accepting a position as research associate at University College London (1934-38). Here, he published extensively on his research interests in the recombination kinetics of free atoms (with Clifford Wood) as well as produced groundbreaking work on the photochemistry of pigments.

In 1938, Rabinowitch emigrated to the United States and joined the Solar Energy Research Project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). There, he articulated the processes of the photogalvanic effect wherein light energy is converted to chemical energy, "a harbinger of artificial photosynthesis" (Govindjee). His research lay the groundwork for his publication, Photosynthesis and Related Processes, which was later published in three volumes (vol. I, 1945; vol. II, 1951; vol. III, 1956) and became an authoritative text in the field.

With the outbreak of WWII, Rabinowitch joined the Manhattan Project, working in the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago, in Illinois, to compile and analyze all available research on uranium chemistry for use by the project. This ultimately resulted in The Chemistry of Uranium (1951, coauthored with Joseph J. Katz). At the same time, he also served on the Committee on Political and Social Problems, chaired by James Franck. Along with Leo Szilard, Rabinowitch authored the famous Franck Report, which notably recommended civilian control of nuclear energy and testing before the atomic bomb's use in combat. His research into nuclear energy led him, in 1945, to cofound with Hyman Goldsmith the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and serve as editor (1945-73). In recognition of his efforts to educate the public about the dangers of atomic energy, he was awarded UNESCO's Kalinga Prize in 1965.

Following the war, in 1947, Rabinowitch accepted a professorship at UIUC and, with Robert Emerson, developed and directed the Photosynthesis Research Laboratory, which evolved into the university's biophysics program. During this time, he taught the biophysics of photosynthesis, and his lab produced many important results, including understanding chlorophyll in vitro; articulating difference absorption spectroscopy; and crystalizing chlorophyll. He was named a member of the Center for Advanced Study in 1966.

In 1968, Rabinowitch accepted a position as professor of chemistry and director of the Center for Science and Human Affairs at the State University of New York (SUNY), Albany. He died on May 15, 1973.


Govindjee, Rajni Govindjee, and George C. Papageorgiou. "Eugene I. Rabinowitch: A prophet of photosynthesis and of peace in the world," in Photosynth Research 141 (May 2019): pp. 143-150. Accessed April 29, 2020, http://www.life.illinois.edu/govindjee/recent_papers_files/Govindjee_et_al2019_Article_EugeneIRabinowitchAProphetOfPh.pdf.

Greenhouse, Linda, "Dr. Eugene Rabinowitch Dies; Manhattan Project Chemist," May 16, 1973, accessed May 7, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/1973/05/16/archives/dr-eugene-rabinowitch-dies-manhattan-project-chemist-71-a-sense-of.html.

"Kalinga Prize Laureate, 1965," UNESCO, accessed April 29, 2020, http://www.unesco.org/new/en/natural-sciences/science-technology/sti-policy/global-focus/science-popularization/prizes/kalinga-prize/kalinga-winners/kalinga-1965/.

Wikipedia, s.v. "Eugene Rabinowitch," accessed April 29, 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugene_Rabinowitch.

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