Isabella Karle was born Isabella Helen Lugoski in Detroit, Michigan, Dec. 2, 1921, the daughter of two Polish immigrants. After graduating high school, Isabella attended the University of Michigan on a full scholarship, earning her Bachelor of Science in Chemistry at the age of 19. She went on to earn her Master of Science and doctorate in physical chemistry. It was during this time that Isabella met the man who became her husband and lifelong collaborator: Dr. Jerome Karle, another decorated alumnus of NRL and 1985 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry.
Together, the Karles revolutionized the field of small molecule structure research by developing methods to determine structures of crystalline substances indispensable to the solutions of problems in numerous scientific disciplines such as chemistry, biochemistry, biophysics, mineralogy, material science, pharmaceuticals, drug design, and medicinal chemistry. By the end of their tenure at NRL, the two had accumulated a combined total of 127 years of scientific research.
The Karles were highly esteemed NRL scientists, with Isabella receiving the NRL Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998. In their honor, NRL has dedicated a conference room on its Washington, D.C. campus to them that displays highlights of their careers and their congratulatory letters and awards. NRL has also established the Jerome and Isabella Karle Distinguished Scholar Fellowship Program which consists of the Karles Fellowships, awarded to young NRL researchers just starting their scientific careers, and the Karles Senior Research Fellowships, open to outstanding established researchers. In addition, NRL hosts the annual Karles Invitational Conferences, started in 2011, to commemorate their achievements and broad scientific impact.
Isabella mentored many young scientists, teaching the direct methods that she developed at international “summer schools” and workshops across the globe. She even influenced her own family: each of her three daughters became a woman in science.
“I remember from a young age that my parents were always very excited about their work,” said Jean Dean, chemist and Isabella’s middle daughter, with fondness. “They always brought that enthusiasm for science home with them, so I got that enthusiasm instilled in me as well very early on.”
“Although they would never say it, it was expected that we find our path in science,” chimed Isabella’s eldest daughter Louise Hanson, a chemist herself, laughing.
Isabella helped pave the way for women in science, becoming the first female faculty member in the University of Michigan’s chemistry department and being an inspirational example of an outstanding professional scientist with more than 350 published papers in her name.
“Dr. Isabella Karle was a pioneer in the scientific community whose legacy will live on through many future generations of scientists,” said Meredith Hutchinson, Ph.D., and president of NRL’s chapter of Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) in which Karle was involved. “Dr. Karle was an icon for women scientists everywhere. NRL WISE is eternally grateful for her hard work, sacrifice and contributions to the field of chemistry.”
Isabella’s first scientific breakthrough came at the age of 22 shortly after earning her doctorate from the University of Michigan, working in Chicago on the Manhattan Project, the World War II research project that led to the invention of the first atomic bombs. Isabella developed the techniques used to synthesize pure plutonium chloride from plutonium oxide mixtures.