C. B. van Niel
Cornelis Bernardus van Niel

(1897-11-04)November 4, 1897
Haarlem, Netherlands
DiedMarch 10, 1985(1985-03-10) (aged 87)
  • United States
  • Netherlands
Alma materTU Delft
Known forChemistry of photosynthesis
AwardsNational Medal of Science (1963)
Leeuwenhoek Medal (1970)
Scientific career
InstitutionsHopkins Marine Station
Doctoral advisorAlbert Kluyver
Doctoral studentsRoger Stanier

Cornelis Bernardus van Niel (also known as Kees van Niel) (November 4, 1897 – March 10, 1985) 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 graduated in chemical engineering at Delft University and became an assistant to Albert Kluyver, who had initiated the field of comparative biochemistry. In 1925 he married Christina van Hemert in Bloemendaal, North Holland, Netherlands. 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 sulphur bacteria and green sulphur 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:

van Niel was elected to the United States National Academy of Sciences in 1945 and the American Philosophical Society in 1948.[8][9] In 1950 van Niel became a correspondent of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1950.[10][11]

Selected publications

The standard author abbreviation C.B.Niel is used to indicate this person as the author when citing a botanical name.[12]


  1. ^ a b c 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). Vol. 59. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. pp. 388–423. ISBN 0309041988.
  2. ^ Niel, C. B. (1932). "On the morphology and physiology of the purple and green sulphur bacteria". Archiv für Mikrobiologie. 3: 1–112. doi:10.1007/BF00454965. S2CID 19597530.
  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 January 30, 2012.
  6. ^ Hopkins Marine Station. "History". Archived from the original on January 26, 2013. Retrieved January 11, 2013.
  7. ^ National Science Foundation. "US NSF - The President's National Medal of Science: Recipient Details". Retrieved January 11, 2013.
  8. ^ "C. B. Van Niel". www.nasonline.org. Retrieved March 9, 2023.
  9. ^ "APS Member History". search.amphilsoc.org. Retrieved March 9, 2023.
  10. ^ "Cornelis Bernardus van Niel (1897 - 1985)". Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved August 4, 2015.
  11. ^ "Cornelis Bernardus van Niel". American Academy of Arts & Sciences. February 9, 2023. Retrieved March 9, 2023.
  12. ^ International Plant Names Index.  C.B.Niel.