1898, loan-translation of German Photosynthese, from photo- "light" (see photo-) + synthese "synthesis" (see synthesis). Related: Photosynthetic. Another early word for it was photosyntax.
[T]he body of the work has been rendered into English with fidelity, the only change of moment being the substitution of the word "photosynthesis" for that of "assimilation." This change follows from a suggestion by Dr. Barnes, made a year ago before the American Association at Madison, who clearly pointed out the need of a distinctive term for the synthetical process in plants, brought about by protoplasm in the presence of chlorophyll and light. He proposed the word "photosyntax," which met with favor. In the discussion Professor MacMillan suggested the word "photosynthesis," as etymologically more satisfactory and accurate, a claim which Dr. Barnes showed could not be maintained. The suggestion of Dr. Barnes not only received tacit acceptance by the botanists of the association, but was practically approved by the Madison Congress in the course of a discussion upon this point. [The Botanical Gazette, vol. xix, 1894]