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Isabella Karle: Crystallographer Par Excellence

Isabella Karle (1921–2017) was already a legendary figure in the world of crystallography when I first met her in 1985 at a meeting to celebrate 50 years of the Patterson function. She and her husband Jerome Karle were among the luminaries in attendance at the meeting at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where Arthur Lindo Patterson had spent most of his illustrious career. The important crystallographer Jenny Glusker, a student and collaborator of Dorothy Hodgkin’s at Oxford University, spent a year as a postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology with Robert Corey, had come here to work as a researcher with Patterson, and subsequently stayed on to develop her own significant career at Fox Chase. She was one of the organizers of the meeting.

The four people whose work was most intimately connected to the invention and development of direct methods for solving the phase problem in X-ray crystallography were in attendance at the Patterson meeting: Isabella and Jerome Karle, Herbert Hauptman, and David Sayre. Solving the phase problem by direct methods, clearly worthy of a Nobel Prize, had been thought for decades to be not just a difficult problem, but one that was mathematically impossible to solve. Isabella proved experimentally that direct methods indeed solved the phase problem of X-ray structures. I thought that she deserved to win the Nobel Prize for her work when I met her at the Patterson symposium.

On the day of the meeting, the weather in Philadelphia was unusually beautiful, and I was out of doors enjoying it while talking to the accomplished crystallographer Miriam Rossi. A student of mine at Hunter College, after obtaining a Ph.D. with Thomas Kistenmacher at Johns Hopkins University, she had spent a postdoctoral appointment with Jenny Glusker at Fox Chase. Also enjoying the weather, Isabella and Jerome Karle were out for a walk across an expansive lawn and were some distance from us. Recognizing them far afield, Miriam asked if I would like to meet the Karles, whom she already knew. I said I would love to meet them, so we trekked out across the lawn to join the Karles. Miriam presented me to them, and we chatted pleasantly for some minutes before realizing we should all get back to the symposium for the afternoon session. What I did not realize at the time was that I would spend more than 30 years working with the Karles, especially during long summers at the U.S. Naval Research Lab in Washington, DC, where their greatest discoveries in crystallography had occurred.

As I grew closer to Isabella and her family, I learned more about how she grew up. Isabella’s parents were Polish immigrants who lived in Detroit, Michigan. The language spoken in the home was Polish. That was more or less Isabella’s only language until she went to public school at about the age of five. Her mother operated a fairly modest restaurant, mainly intended to supply lunch for workers in their area. At the very young age of five or six, Isabella took on the tasks of an accountant for her mother. She kept track of bills and funding for the family business. During her school years, her teachers took note of her scholarly abilities. After leaving high school and starting at a smaller college, she was ultimately offered a full scholarship to attend the University of Michigan. From elementary school through her university years, she was always at the top of her class.

As a senior at the University of Michigan, it would seem she met her intellectual match in Jerome Karle. Jerome was an incoming graduate student, but he was required to take an undergraduate physical chemistry lab course to get himself started. The students in the class were assigned to lab stations alphabetically according to family names, and so Isabella Lugoski was put next to Jerome Karle. Jerome had skipped lunch to enter the lab ahead of its starting time, and when Lugoski arrived to find herself next to Karle, she was mildly annoyed to see his rather complicated experimental setup entirely in place and ready to go. Their relationship did not immediately flourish. Jerome was an accomplished pianist and asked Isabella to attend a concert one evening. When she arrived wearing the same clothes she had worn in the lab that day, he was not impressed. Fortunately, things got better. They started attending movies quite regularly on weekends. What finally cemented the relationship was a bit of flu that sent Isabella back to Detroit to recuperate at her family home. Jerome made a follow-on trip to Detroit to bring Isabella the class notes she had missed in her absence from the campus. Their scientific cooperation, not to mention their life together, was well underway.

Read the full chapter.

This post is an excerpt from ‘Isabella Karle: Crystallographer Par Excellence‘, The Posthumous Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Volume 2. Ladies in Waiting for the Nobel Prize.

Chapter Author: Lou Massa
Volume Editors: Vera V. Mainz, E. Thomas Strom
Publication Date (Web): December 14, 2018
Copyright © 2018 American Chemical Society

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