Isabella L. Karle
The information listed below is current as of the date the transcript was finalized.
Abstract of Interview
Isabella and Jerome Karle met while both were pursuing doctorates in physical chemistry under Professor Lawrence Brockway at the University of Michigan. After earning their degrees (and marrying), they worked on the Manhattan Project at the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Laboratory. After a brief return to the University of Michigan, the Karle’s moved to the United States Naval Research Laboratory, where they focused on the development of X-ray crystallography. They worked together to develop a direct method for determining crystal structures, work for which Jerome Karle, with their colleague Herbert Hauptman, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1985.
In the first of three interview sessions, the discussion focuses on Isabella and Jerome’s family backgrounds, their education in the public schools of Detroit and New York, respectively, their undergraduate careers, and their meeting and graduate work at the University of Michigan under Professor Brockway. The second interview session covers the Karles’ work on the Manhattan Project at the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago, their subsequent return to the University of Michigan, the growth of the field of electron diffraction, the challenges of pursuing dual research careers, and their move to the Naval Research Laboratory. This second session concludes with a look at their early years at NRL, during which they designed a new apparatus for gas electron diffraction and developed theoretical and experimental approaches to solving the crystal structure problem. The third and final interview session begins with a discussion about the early opposition to the Karles’ theoretical work on the crystal structure problem, and the process by which that work gained acceptance through Isabella Karle’s X-ray diffraction work beginning in the mid-fifties, through which she was able to solve the structures of spurrite, p,p’-dimethoxybenzophenone, and arginine, among others. Discussion then turns to the nature of the Karles’ working partnership in research and in their family life, their children’s interests and eventual careers in science, their collaboration with Herb Hauptman, and the effect of the 1985 Nobel Prize in Chemistry on their lives and work. The interview concludes with Jerome Karle’s thoughts on the present state of science education and training in the United States, and his concerns for a global future marked by overpopulation, pollution and natural resource depletion.
|1941||University of Michigan||BS||Chemistry|
|1942||University of Michigan||MS||Physical chemistry|
|1944||University of Michigan||PhD||Physical chemistry|
University of Michigan
National Research Laboratory
Superior Civilian Service, Navy Department
Annual Achievement Award, Society of Women Engineers
Hillebrand Award, American Chemical Society
Federal Women's Award
Garvan Medal, American Chemical Society
Dexter Conrad Award, Office of Naval Research
Chemical Pioneer Award, American Institute of Chemists
Lifetime Achievement Award, Women in Science and Engineering
Gregory Aminoff Prize, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
Rear Admiral William S. Parsons Award of the Navy League
Table of Contents
Parents' emigration from Poland. Growing up in an immigrant neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan. Education in the Detroit public schools. Discovering an interest in chemistry. Extended family and social life among Detroit’s Polish community. Semester at Wayne University and scholarship to University of Michigan. Work as Robert Carney’s lab assistant; helping to create pedagogical film for analytical chemistry demonstrations. Faculty and peers at the University of Michigan. Lawrence Brockway. Meeting J. Karle.
Grandparents’ emigration. Father’s family of artists and musicians; mother’s education and musical ability. Parents’ ambitions for him. Growing up on Coney Island. High standards in New York City public schools. Early interest in science. Accelerated academic advancement; graduating high school at fifteen. Challenging environment at City College of New York. Peers. Student activism. Rejection from medical school. Graduate work at Harvard. Lab assistant job at New York State Department of Health.
Financing J. Karle’s graduate education; teaching fellowship. Influential professors: Brockway, Bachmann, Rainich. Family attitudes to education. Brockway’s group. I. Karle’s thesis work on fluorine affected by war. Early electron diffraction work. Impact of war on undergraduate and graduate student body. Teaching. Early meetings on electron diffraction. Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago and the Manhattan Project. Laboratory safety practices.
Facilities at the Met Lab at University of Chicago. Designing and building specialized equipment and instruments. Safety; radiation monitoring. I. Karle’s work synthesizing plutonium chloride. Meetings and morale. Administrative structure. Impressions of Glenn Seaborg. Information sharing across the Manhattan Project laboratories. Security measures. Leaving the Met Lab.
Friendship with Lawrence Brockway. I. Karle first woman appointed instructor in chemistry at the University of Michigan. I. Karle’s interactions with colleagues at the Met Lab; other women scientists. Impact of war on universities; younger male students, faculty shortage. J. Karle’s research work on Brockway’s Navy projects; boundary lubrication; ship hull corrosion. J. Karle becomes employee of Naval Research Laboratory in 1944, remaining at Michigan. Other members of Brockway’s group. Electron diffraction in the United States and abroad. Early experiments by Herman Mark, Raimund Wierle, Linus Pauling. Striking number of early deaths among electron diffraction researchers. Changes in training and preparation with availability of commercial instruments. Impact of computing and computer programs; theory versus experimentation. Copyrighting of computer programs and the free flow of scientific information.
I. Karle’s teaching experience with first-year chemistry students. Impact of war; concentrated academic schedule. Desire for academic research careers limiting opportunities, effect of university nepotism rules. Planning underway to shift NRL to basic research focus. Zisman encourages Herb Friedman to hire both Karles into the Optics Division. Post-war university boom. Birth of first child. J. Karle’s antipathy towards career in industry.
Negotiations for joining NRL. J. Karle’s research plans; structure research using gas electron diffraction. Quality of NRL machine shops. Building the first apparatus; publishing results by 1948. Working environment in Optics Division and NRL. Attitudes towards basic versus applied research. Administration of NRL under different civilian research directors. J. Karle’s theoretical work during the first year. Peter Debye. Non-negative functions applicable to crystal structure problem. Herb Hauptman. Division of research labor. Key publications. Announcement of results at 1949 crystallography meeting; skeptical reception.
Small but vocal opposition to Karles’ findings; support of NRL throughout. Early application by US Geological Survey; I. Karle takes up X-ray diffraction in mid-fifties to demonstrate the methodology; begins solving difficult structures; arginine work a benchmark.
Joint and separate research work; about 30 percent collaborative. Non-competitiveness. Children’s interest in science; taking them to scientific meetings abroad. Childrens’ careers. Laboratory for the Structure of Matter; administration of special laboratories at NRL. Collaboration with Hauptman. Learning he had received the Nobel Prize; response of colleagues; effect on life and research. J. Karle’s new research on non-linearity.
Role as public spokesman for science. Deficiencies in US educational system. Decrease in number of American science graduate students. Difficult conditions for early career scientists in the US. I. Karle’s work on peptide structure. Importance of hard work, perseverance, and motivation to discover and contribute. Concerns for the future: overpopulation, pollution, resource depletion.
About the Interviewer
James J. Bohning was professor emeritus of chemistry at Wilkes University, where he had been a faculty member from 1959 to 1990. He served there as chemistry department chair from 1970 to 1986 and environmental science department chair from 1987 to 1990. Bohning was chair of the American Chemical Society’s Division of the History of Chemistry in 1986; he received the division’s Outstanding Paper Award in 1989 and presented more than forty papers at national meetings of the society. Bohning was on the advisory committee of the society’s National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program from its inception in 1992 through 2001 and is currently a consultant to the committee. He developed the oral history program of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and he was CHF’s director of oral history from 1990 to 1995. From 1995 to 1998, Bohning was a science writer for the News Service group of the American Chemical Society. In May 2005, he received the Joseph Priestley Service Award from the Susquehanna Valley Section of the American Chemical Society. Bohning passed away in September 2011.
David van Keuren earned a PhD in history and sociology of science from the University of Pennsylvania in 1982, following a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin at Madison (1975) and a bachelor’s from the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire (1972). His graduate studies were concentrated on scientific thought in Europe and America from the Middle Ages to the present. In 1986, he joined the staff of the Naval Research Laboratory as its historian, documenting the agency’s significant research and development achievements past and present, and contributing to national awareness of the broad impact of military scientific research on civil society. He died in a hit-and-run bicycle accident on 26 March 2004, in southwest Washington.