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

Dr. Jerome Karle, former Naval Research Laboratory scientist and Nobel Prize laureate, died on June 6, 2013, at the age of 94. 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.Dr. Jerome Karle, NRL scientist and Nobel Prize laureate.
(Photo: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory)

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).

Dr.Dr. Jerome Karle with his wife Dr. Isabella Karle.
(Photo: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory)

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.

Dr.Dr. Jerome Karle with the electron diffraction machine.
(Photo: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory)

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.

Jerome Karle is survived by his wife, three daughters (two chemists and a geologist), and four grandchildren.

Eulogy for Dr. Jerome Karle

Editor's Note: Dr. Lou Massa delivered the eulogy at Dr. Jerome Karle's funeral on June 22. Dr. Massa is Professor of Chemistry & Physics at Hunter College and the Graduate School, City University of New York. In addition, he spends his summers working at NRL and had the privilege of working alongside Dr. Karle.

I'm Lou Massa from City University of New York. I'm lucky enough to be a friend of Jerome Karle. I express condolences to Isabella, and to their daughters Louise, Jean, and Madeline, and all their larger family and friends. When a person dies it is fitting to reflect upon their life and the importance of it and its meaning for us.

Jerome Karle lived near to 95 years. He was a great man, living in a great country, supported by a great Laboratory, viz., the U.S. Naval Research Lab. He lived through much of our country's history, including the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and collapse of the Soviet Union.

Over those years his own personal history included City College of New York, three hours a day on the subway, back and forth from his home on Coney Island. From there to Harvard for an MS in biology. Then onto University of Michigan, where he gets a PhD in chemistry, becomes an expert in electron diffraction, and meets and marries his equally expert classmate Isabella Lugoski. Next stop, the Manhattan project of WWII, where they both work on different aspects of plutonium chemistry. After that, they both settle into productive science careers at the NRL. Jerome Karle worked at NRL for some 60 years, becoming the U.S. Navy's highest ranking scientist, founding the Laboratory for the Structure of Matter, making fundamental discoveries, winning too many important awards to mention now, but by the way, one of them was the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He became an advisor to Popes and Presidents. To remember, him riding three hours a day on that rattling subway, to get an education at City College, in contrast say to answering a phone call from President Reagan, at home, or discussing birth control with Pope John Paul, in the Vatican, that is a contrast to amaze.

The Nobel Prize—That of course crystalized his fame as one of the greatest scientists of his generation. Why? Because of his contribution to solving, X-ray crystal structures, not just a difficult problem, but one that was for decades thought to be mathematically impossible to solve. Karle and Hauptman realized, as no one before them had done, how to solve the problem and wrote the mathematics for how to solve for the unknown atomic positions. Isabella took that mathematics and applied it to actual X-ray measurements, which she herself made, in that way solving structures no one else could do. And thus the problem of crystal structures was truly solved. Theoretically and Experimentally. That was the Nobel prize, in a nut shell.

Louise was quoted in the New York Times a few days ago, saying her father's science was misunderstood for a long time. In that of course she was correct. But to put it slightly more strongly, one might say, people in the field of this crystallography were mostly downright hostile. Jerome, in his official autobiography on the Nobel website said, The scientists in our field did not believe a single word we said!

At a time when the world was saying the Karles could not be solving the crystallography problem, NRL never wavered. They believed in basic research. They believed in Jerome. Even though it was not immediately evident if the work would be applicable to Naval interests, they maintained their support. That faith served both Jerome and the Navy well. There is now almost no field of science and technology wherein crystal structures are not important. Jerome told me many times he was grateful to the NRL for their support, in the face of so many experts saying no way.

It's not just science that makes a great man, it also requires great traits of personality. No matter how important were his scientific contributions, he lived simply, and was extraordinarily humble. Always modest in behavior, attitude, and spirit. Never arrogant or prideful. Anyone that spoke to him, was made to feel as important as was he. I will give you an example, which I find to be both illustrative and slightly humorous. I spent a week with Jerome once at a conference in Florida. The chair of Physics from Brooklyn College was there too, but he did not know Jerome before the conference. After spending a few days with us at the seminars, meals, and so on, after one of these days we are in a cluster having drinks and talking. He says to Jerome, I notice from your name tag you are from NRL. Did you ever meet that Nobel Prize winner from NRL? A slight pause, and Jerome said You may be speaking of me. He had that kind of humility.

He loved talking about science to young people. He went to their schools. He had them in his lab to work with him. Youngsters wrote to him from faraway places. He not only wrote back, he wrote to their parents too, with his best advice for supporting curiosity and freedom of thought in their children.

The people around him at the lab including, Lulu, Peggy, Steve, John, Richard, Maryann, Sid, and so many others, appreciated him enormously. I do not think it is too much exaggeration to say they were better scientists, and better people in imitation of him. I have always felt the kindness to those around him was simply a natural extension of the love of his own family.

Something I admired was his work ethic. He was a brilliant, steady, hard worker all his scientific life. He was not one to while away afternoons in the vast lobbies of grand hotels. The Karles drove to the Lab every day, worked all day, enjoyed what they were doing, understood its importance, shared with those around them, and did that every working day. The Nobel Prize did not change that one bit.

So the summary is simply, that Jerome Karle is to be remembered as a great person, who thrived in a great country, supported steadfastly by one of the country's greatest labs, NRL, and beyond that his humanity is something to wonder over, and emulate.