Isabella Karle (1921-2017) was a pioneer in the scientific field of crystallography. Her work on molecular structures had a sweeping influence across many scientific fields by allowing, for example, scientists to study nerve transmissions and aiding chemists in synthesizing pest repellents. She worked on plutonium chemistry at the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Laboratory during the Manhattan Project.
Isabella Karle was born in Detroit, Michigan, the daughter of Polish immigrants. She received her Bachelor’s Degree of Science in physical chemistry from the University of Michigan in 1940. Karle then went on to obtain a Master’s of Science as well as a Ph.D. in the same subject from Michigan. At the University of Michigan, Karle met her husband, Jerome, who was also a physical chemistry Ph.D. student. The pair married in 1942 and became a powerful team in the field of science and crystallography.
Beginning in 1946, Karle and her husband began research at the US Naval Research Laboratory in crystallography. They helped to develop techniques to extract plutonium chloride from a mixture that contained plutonium oxide. More importantly, they also determined the structure of complex biological molecules, including proteins. These discoveries revolutionized drug development because it allowed researchers and scientists to see how drugs interact with proteins in the human body.
Jerome Karle won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1985. Isabella also won a number of prizes and was celebrated at chemistry conferences worldwide. She was the recipient of, among others, the Navy’s Superior Civilian Service Award, the National Medal of Science, the Women in Science and Engineering’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Franklin Institute’s Bower Award.