Isabella Karle

1 Isabella KarleIsabella Karle in 2005 in Washington, DC

Isabella Karle (1921- ) is a world-famous structural chemist, who has received almost all awards and distinctions except for the Nobel Prize. In fact, there are many who thought she should have shared the one in 1985, which her husband, Jerome Karle received jointly with Herbert A. Hauptman in Chemistry.

Isabella Karle is one of the 65 women scientists, who are presented in the book by Magdolna Hargittai, Women Scientists: Reflections, Challenges, and Breaking Boundaries, published recently by Oxford University Press. Most of these women qualify to be included among the STEM Grandmas. We have singled out Isabella for her professional and human qualities.

2 Book coverThe cover of the book shows Isabella Karle
at the University of Michigan in 1948,
working with an electron diffraction apparatus.

Isabella and her husband were among the pioneers of the research field, in which gas-phase electron diffraction was used to determine the structure of molecules. They made major improvements in this technique thus making it much more accurate in determining molecular structures than it had been before. Isabella and Jerome Karle worked in the same scientific field all their lives, although, as Isabella put it, “they worked together separately.”

Both received their PhD degrees at the University of Michigan under the mentorship of Professor Lawrence O. Brockway. In 1946 they moved to the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, DC. This move made it possible for them to work together, because NRL did not have the same strict anti-nepotism rules that most US universities used to have during the middle of the 20st century.

Originally, they were both interested in experiments but gradually, Jerome moved toward theoretical work and Isabella stayed with experiments. This increased their potentials because their work complemented and thus strengthened each other.

In the early 1950s, Jerome and the mathematician Herbert Hauptman together developed a particular method that vastly expanded the possibilities of a very important physical technique for structure determination. This technique is X-ray crystallography and the new approach was called the direct methods. Jerome Karle and Hauptman’s work was theoretical and they needed experimental evidence showing that it really worked. Unfortunately, for many long years, crystallographers were reluctant to accept, let alone apply, Karle and Hauptman’s suggestions. This caused a great deal of frustration.

Isabella believed in the feasibility of the new method and at one point, she decided that she will take upon herself to prove its validity. She built up an X-ray diffraction laboratory, worked out the connection between the mathematical description of the new method and her experimental data, and brilliantly demonstrated the validity of the new technique. Thus, she had a decisive role in making the direct methods into a successful tool in X-ray crystallography. We might speculate that had she not done this, the method might have gone into oblivion. In any case, the Nobel Prize went to Jerome Karle and Herbert Hauptman – although there was still an empty slot, considering that according to the rules of the Nobel Prize, in every category at most three persons may share the prize. It is also true that by the time of the 1985 Nobel award, there were a number of excellent contributors to the applications and dissemination of the direct methods. Thus a number of scientists might have been considered for filling the third slot of the Nobel Prize. The Nobel decision makers chose the safe solution and awarded the prize to the two whose merits were unquestionable and without competition.

3 Isabella and Jerome KarleJerome and Isabella Karle at the Naval Research Laboratory
with models of molecules, around 1970

Nonetheless, Jerome was very sad about Isabella’s omission. As to her, she feels that although it would have been wonderful to receive the prize together with Jerome – many other prestigious awards have consoled her. One of Isabella’s most prestigious awards was the Aminoff Prize (1988) from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, established specifically for pioneers in crystallography. She has received numerous other awards and distinctions; much too many to list them all. She is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences (1978), she was the first woman receiving the Bower Award and Prize for Achievement in Science from the Franklin Institute in 1993, “for her pioneering contributions in determining the three-dimensional structure of molecules,” and she received the National Medal of Science from President Bill Clinton in 1995.

4 Nat Medal of ScienceVice President Al Gore, Isabella Karle, and President Bill Clinton
in 1995 in the White House on the occasion of Isabella’s receiving
the National Medal of Science

After proving how useful the new scheme for structure determination was, Isabella’s attention turned increasingly toward the structure determination of large, biologically important molecules. She uncovered details about the structures of peptides, steroids, and alkaloids, and her results have advanced chemical and biochemical research all over the world.

Isabella and Jerome have three daughters and four grandchildren, so she eminently qualifies for a STEM grandma. Of course, bringing up three children and doing top science required a great deal of organization and time. She considers herself lucky in that crystallography is a scientific field in which you can do both your science and bringing up children.

Isabella and Jerome retired from the Naval Research Laboratory in 2009 – after more than 60 years of service. Jerome passed away on June 6, 2013. Isabella is a fantastic example of a STEM grandma just as Isabella and Jerome’s duo was a wonderful example of a scientific couple.

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