In Memoriam: Isabella Karle

In Memoriam: Isabella Karle

Isabella Karle

We are sad to report the passing of our friend and scientist Dr. Isabella Karle at the age of 95 on October 3. Dr. Karle worked on plutonium chemistry at the Chicago Met Lab during the Manhattan Project. She was a pioneer in crystallography, and worked at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory for many years. She spoke at AHF's 75th anniversary events in Washington, DC, in June 2015, and we recorded two wonderful interviews with her.

When Isabella Karle walked into her chemistry class at Wayne State University at the beginning of her freshman year in 1940, she was the only girl in the class. She eventually transferred to the University of Michigan, where she met her husband, Jerome Karle in a chemistry class. They married in 1942.

With the war in Europe already raging, Jerome was selected for a secret project in Chicago. After completing her Ph.D. in 1943, Isabella too was invited to work on the secret project. 

"My objective was to find out how plutonium behaves with other chemicals and how to synthesize a new compound of plutonium chloride with no impurities," she recalled in an interview with AHF. At twenty-three years of age, Isabella was one of the youngest scientists at the laboratory and one of only a handful of women.

After the Manhattan Project, Isabella and Jerome began a lifetime of collaboration. In 1946, both were invited to join the Naval Research Laboratory, where they began working on a new method to determine the structure of complex biological molecules. Jerome worked on the experimental equations needed to analyze the molecules while Isabella provided the experimental data to prove that they worked.

With the help of some of IBM's earliest computing machines, Jerome and Isabella were able to verify their equations. This new methodology drastically improved scientists' ability to analyze and understand complex biological molecules and contributed to the development of new pharmaceuticals.

In 1985, Jerome and colleague Herbert Hauptman were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work on the mathematical equations. Despite her experimental work on the project, the Nobel Committee ignored Isabella's contribution. No one was more upset than Jerome, she explained in Isabella Karle's Curious Crystal Method. "But I told him to forget about it--I had enough awards as it was."

Isabella won a number of prizes for her experimental work, including the National Medal of Science, awarded by President Clinton; the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Achievement Award; and the Navy's Superior Civilian Service Award. In her AHF interview, she declared, "I enjoyed all the scientific work that I was involved in and I also enjoyed traveling around the world. Not all people are that fortunate." For more about Dr. Karle's life and career, please see Manhattan Project Spotlight: Isabella Karle.