NEWS | Dec. 28, 2012

NRL-WISE Hosts NIST Physicist Dr. Katharine Gebbie

By Claire Peachey

NRL's chapter of Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) holds meetings throughout the year, and often hosts eminent speakers. Most recently, Dr. Katharine Blodgett Gebbie of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) accepted the invitation of NRL-WISE president Dr. Arati Dasgupta to speak at NRL.

Dr. Gebbie is director of NIST's Physical Measurement Laboratory, where scientists conduct basic research in measurement science, with a focus on atomic, molecular, optical, and radiation physics, and provide national measurement standards and services. Dr. Gebbie helped to establish the laboratory some two decades ago and is known for fostering creativity and innovation as she guides NIST's mission-oriented physics research. The scientists in her laboratory include four Nobel Prize winners since 1997.

At NRL, Dr. Gebbie gave an illuminating presentation about physicist Dr. Katharine Burr Blodgett (1898-1979), a pioneer in molecular film technology, inventor of nonreflective glass, and above all, Dr. Gebbie's aunt and inspiration.

Dr. Gebbie was close to her aunt Katharine and enjoys sharing the details of her life and personality. Dr. Blodgett is one of many women scientists whose contributions have not always made it into the history books. Among her many accomplishments, she was the first female research scientist to be hired by the General Electric Research Laboratory (GE) in Schenectady, New York, the first woman to earn a doctorate in physics from Cambridge University in England, and the 1951 winner of the American Chemical Society's Francis P. Garvan Medal, which recognizes distinguished service to chemistry by women chemists.

Dr. Gebbie's presentation began with the life of the young Katharine Blodgett, whose father was a well-known patent lawyer at GE. A few weeks before Katharine was born, her father was shot and killed by a burglar in a shocking (and unsolved) crime that changed the life of the young family. Katharine's mother wore black for the rest of her life, and Dr. Gebbie related that Katharine's childhood may not have been a very carefree one. But Mrs. Blodgett was devoted to educating her children, and moved the family to Europe for a while, where she felt the education was better and less expensive. Katharine's talents were recognized early, as she was reading at age two.

Katharine entered Bryn Mawr College at the age of 15 and graduated second in her class in 1917, majoring in physics. She then earned a master's degree in chemistry from the University of Chicago in 1918, studying the adsorption of gases on charcoal. She was hired soon thereafter by GE and began working with Dr. Irving Langmuir, who became a mentor and lifelong collaborator in her scientific work. Dr. Langmuir went on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1932 for his discoveries and investigations in surface chemistry.

In 1924, at Dr. Langmuir's encouragement, Katharine went to study under Sir Ernest Rutherford at the renowned Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University. After receiving her doctorate in physics there in 1926, she returned to Schenectady to her family roots and stayed there for the rest of her life, working at GE until her retirement in 1963.

At GE, Dr. Blodgett worked with Dr. Langmuir on many projects, including research on thin films. Dr. Langmuir had conducted quantitative work on floating monolayers of fatty acids on water and showed that these monolayers could be transferred to solid substrates. Drs. Blodgett and Langmuir discovered a way to deposit the coatings layer by layer onto glass and metal to any desired thickness. These built-up monolayer assemblies are now referred to as Langmuir-Blodgett films. Dr. Blodgett published this work in the Journal of the American Chemical Society in 1934 and 1935, and later developed and patented a color gauge for measuring the thickness of these monomolecular films.

In her experiments, Dr. Blodgett found the right thickness of barium stearate monolayers to cancel out reflections from the surface of glass, leading to the 1939 newspaper headline "Woman Scientist Invents Wonder Glass." Features about Dr. Blodgett and her "invisible" glass appeared in Time and Life magazines, while she published her methods in Physical Review and Science. Her invention of nonreflecting glass is considered the prototype of coatings used today on camera lenses and other optical devices.

Dr. Blodgett received at least six patents for her inventions, and authored or coauthored some 30 journal articles throughout her career. Between 1939 and 1944, she earned four honorary doctorates. In conferring the doctorate in 1944, the president of Russell Sage College stated, "Your discoveries that have increased the efficiency of system(s) of lenses - in aerial cameras and submarine periscopes - have given clear vision to our defenders of Democracy 'in the Heavens above' and 'in the waters beneath the earth.'" The address also noted that Dr. Irving Langmuir characterized Dr. Blodgett as "a woman who has 'that rare combination of theoretical and practical ability' 'and living proof that a woman can be as good a scientist as a man.'"

Dr. Blodgett received several other awards for her work, and in 1951, the city of Schenectady established Katharine Burr Blodgett Day to recognize both her scientific achievements and her civic contributions. An elementary school in the city is also named after her, which is particularly appropriate, as Dr. Gebbie recalls that Aunt Katharine always entranced her and her playmates with the suitcase of experiments she used to bring to the house—she would show the children how to make different colors by dipping glass rods into films of oil floating on water.

Dr. Gebbie was not only inspired by her namesake aunt, but she also followed in her footsteps—as did Dr. Gebbie's mother and another aunt—by attending Bryn Mawr College. (Dr. Gebbie wryly related that on her 15th birthday, her grandmother first congratulated her for turning 15, and then pointed out that her Aunt Katharine was already entering Bryn Mawr at age 15.) Dr. Gebbie majored in physics, as her aunt had, and was one of only three students with that major in the class of 1957. She went on to study astronomy and earned her Ph.D. in physics from University College London. In 1991, after a long career at the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics in Boulder, Colorado, she became chief of NIST's new Physics Laboratory, now called the Physical Measurement Laboratory. In her role at NIST, Dr. Gebbie has been called "fearless and committed to excellence." She is also called "high-flying"—in part, because she is a pilot; she has flown her mother's small plane all around North America.

Dr. Gebbie acknowledged that her aunt Katharine was a role model to her, but that she did not realize it until she was older. It never occurred to her to ask her aunt what it was like to be a prominent woman scientist—after all, didn't everyone have aunts who were distinguished physicists? To Dr. Gebbie, she was her fun and entertaining Aunt Katharine who always had a suitcase, and a mind, full of wonders to share.