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Jerome Karle, Nobel Prize Laureate and Navy Scientist, Dies at 94

Published: Thursday, June 27, 2013
Last Updated: Thursday, June 27, 2013
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Dr. Karle shared the 1985 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Dr. Karle shared the 1985 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing a theoretical technique in X-ray crystallography, known as the "Direct Method" that is used by scientists the world over to determine the structures and shapes of complex molecules. His discovery paved the way for important advances in medicine and many other scientific fields.

Dr. Karle shared both his work and his life with his wife Dr. Isabella Karle, who worked alongside him at the Naval Research Laboratory. At NRL, Dr. Karle held the Chair of Science as Chief Scientist of the Laboratory for the Structure of Matter. Dr. Karle came to NRL in 1944; his wife joined him in 1946. At their retirement in 2009, they held a combined 127 years of federal service.

Jerome Karle, along with Herbert Hauptman, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1985 for devising direct methods of determining complex crystal structures by using X-ray diffraction analysis. At the time Karle and Hauptman tackled the challenge of discerning the structure of three-dimensional molecules, it was a problem that scientists had struggled with for years—a process that could take scientists months or years to complete. With the technique they developed, Jerome Karle and Herbert Hauptman solved the problem so that the lengthy, tedious process could now be completed precisely and quickly.

Isabella Karle, building on this work, developed methods that led to the analysis and publication of the molecular structures of many thousands of complicated molecules annually. For years the technique developed by Karle and Hauptman was overlooked by scientists, who were not quite sure it worked. It was Isabella's work that drew attention to its usefulness. And today, this methodology has enabled the characterization of potent toxins, antitoxins, heart drugs, antibiotics, anti-addictive substances, anticarcinogens, anti-malarials, and explosives and propellants.

At the time the Karles retired, Dr. Bhakta Rath, Associate Director of Research for Materials Science and Component Technology, spoke about the significance of the Karles' careers, saying, "The departure of Jerry and Isabella from our midst at the Naval Research Laboratory marked the end of an era. Through their persistent and dedicated research they opened the doors to our understanding of the complexities of atomic arrangements in large biological and organic molecules. Their theoretical and experimental research, which is now commonly known as the direct method for solving the multi-variable complex functions extracted from x-ray diffraction data has made immeasurable contribution to our understanding of the structure and function of biomolecules and consequently to the development of various pharmaceutical products. Through their continued research they created new areas known as quantum crystallography and kernel method. Researchers the world over can solve structures of molecules containing tens of thousands of atoms in a matter of hours, which otherwise would have taken careers to solve.

The combined length of service of Jerry and Isabella at NRL, extending over 127 years, beginning since the Manhattan project, will be long cherished and remembered as a historic event for the laboratory, the US Navy, the nation, and the world."

Jerome Karle attended New York City schools and graduated from the City College of New York in 1937, the first recipient of the Caduceus Award for excellence in the Natural Sciences. He obtained an M.A. degree in Biology in 1938 at Harvard University. After working at the New York State Health Department, he attended the University of Michigan and received M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Physical Chemistry in 1942 and 1944, respectively. Jerome Karle met his wife Isabella while a student at University of Michigan. In the physical chemistry laboratory, seating was arranged alphabetically and so it was that Jerome Karle sat beside Isabella Lugoski. After they both completed their doctorates, they worked on the Manhattan Project in Chicago, focusing on the extraction and purification of plutonium. Dr. Karle joined NRL in 1944 and then from1968 until his retirement in 2009, he was the Chief Scientist of the Laboratory for the Structure of Matter (LSM).

Jerome Karle's research was concerned with diffraction theory and its application to the determination of atomic arrangements in various states of aggregation, gases, liquids, amorphous solids, fibers, and macromolecules. This research resulted in new techniques for structure determination and a broad variety of applications. It was this work in crystal structure analysis that was recognized by the 1985 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Jerome Karle's more recent research interests concerned analytical techniques for the determination of macromolecular structure. Some recent applications have involved the use of major technical advances such as high intensity synchrotron sources. In one such application, Professor Janet Smith of Purdue University, a former postdoctoral member of NRL in LSM, and colleagues, have solved a structure containing about 15,000 nonhydrogen atoms. A most recent interest was in a developing field that he and his research colleagues call quantum crystallography. It concerned a method for combining X-ray diffraction data for crystals with quantum mechanics in order to obtain wave functions that are consistent with the X-ray data. The objective is to extend the use of X-ray diffraction beyond the determination of atomic arrangements, which it does quite well, to the determination of additional features such as charges on atoms and energies.

Jerome Karle was a Fellow of the American Physical Society, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, served as president of the International Union of Crystallography, and a member of a number of other professional societies. He was chairman of the Chemistry Section of the National Academy of Sciences. He was awarded the following honors: Department of the Navy Distinguished Civilian Service Award, Research Society of America Award in Pure Science, election as Fellow of the American Physical Society, Chair of Science at NRL, Hillebrand Award of Washington Section of American Chemical Society, Navy Robert Dexter Conrad Award, election to National Academy of Sciences, Patterson Award of American Crystallographic Association, D. Humane Letters Honoris Causa at Georgetown University, and in 1985 the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

In 1986 Dr. Karle received the Albert A. Michelson Award from the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Doctorate Honoris Causa from the University of Maryland, Doctorate Honoris Causa from the City University of New York, Golden Plate Award of the Academy of Achievement, Rear Admiral William S. Parsons Award of the Navy League, Townsend Harris Award from the Alumni Association of City College of New York, Secretary of Navy Award for Distinguished Achievement in Science, Presidential Rank of Distinguished Executive in the Senior Executive Service, President's Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service, and the National Library of Medicine Medal.

His awards continued with The University of Michigan Outstanding Achievement Award, election as Member of the American Philosophical Society, Doctor of Science Honoris Causa from the University of Michigan, Order of Francisco di Miranda (First Class) received from President Carlos Andres Perez of Venezuela, first NRL Lifetime Achievement Award, Ettore Majorana-Erice "Science for Peace" Prize, University of Michigan Chemistry Alumni Excellence Award, Honorary Doctor of Science from the University of Athens, Honorary Doctor of Science from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow Poland, Fred E. Saalfeld Award for Lifetime Achievement in Science from the Office of Naval Research, inclusion in the Pentagon exhibit honoring DoD career civilian employees for contributions to the military, and the Jerome and Isabella Karle Collegiate Professorship of Chemistry established at University of Michigan.

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