Groundbreaking Scientist Whose Research Helped Earn Her Husband a Nobel Prize Dies at 95

Isabella L. Karle, a National Medal of Science honoree and pioneering crystallographer whose work helped her husband win a Nobel Prize, has died at 95.


According to the New York Times, her experiments “elucidating the shapes of molecules contributed crucially to her husband’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry” in 1985. The paper explains:

Dr. Karle was an expert in bouncing X-rays off crystals to deduce the structure of molecules by observing patterns in the deflected rays. When she and her husband, Jerome Karle, joined the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington in the mid-1940s, the technique was limited and arduous. Scientists did not know how to apply it to most molecules, like large biological ones.

In the 1950s, Jerome Karle, together with Herbert A. Hauptman, a mathematician, developed a technique that could be used for more complex, three-dimensional structures. But they had trouble convincing anyone that it would work.

“My father never actually did a crystal structure in his life,” Ms. Hanson said.

It was Isabella Karle who demonstrated it would work, puzzling out the practical applications. This despite the fact that—according to the Washington Post—one teacher once told her chemistry wasn’t really an appropriate subject for a young woman. When her husband got the Nobel, he was upset to learn his wife hadn’t also received a nod. “He wanted to not accept it,” said their daughter, Louise Karle Hanson, “and she told him, ‘Go ahead, that’s silly, you should accept it.’”

According to Karle’s obituary in the Washington Post:

The Karles worked side by side at the NRL’s Laboratory for the Structure of Matter, accumulating a combined 127 years of federal service. “I do the physical applications, he works with the theoretical,” she once told The Washington Post. “It makes a good team. Science requires both types.”

That is genuinely the most romantic thing I’ve heard all week.

Senior Editor at Jezebel, specializing in books, royals, romance novels, houses, history, and the stories we tell about domesticity and femininity. Resident Windsor expert.



I can’t tell if my comment posted, so sorry if it’s here twice.

It’s amazung what we let advisers tell young women about what they can do. In 2007 I met my adviser for the first time. He didn’t look at my transcript. He didn’t ask me what classes I had already taken. But he felt comfortable telling me that I wasn’t smart enough to take organic chemistry that fall.


A recent bioorganic chemistry PhD