Jerome Karle, 94, a retired Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) scientist who shared the 1985 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing a way to determine the structure of three-dimensional molecules, died of liver cancer on June 6 in Annandale, Va.
Born in New York City, Karle earned a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1937 from the City College of New York and an M.A. in biology in 1938 from Harvard University. After working briefly at the New York State Health Department, he earned an M.S. in 1942 and a Ph.D. in 1944, both in physical chemistry from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
He worked on the Manhattan Project in Chicago in 1943, focusing on the extraction and purification of plutonium. Karle joined NRL in 1944 and served as the chief scientist of its Laboratory for the Structure of Matter from 1968 until his retirement in 2009.
Karle’s work focused on diffraction theory and its application to determining atomic arrangements in gases, liquids, amorphous solids, fibers, and macromolecules. Karle shared the Nobel Prize with Herbert A. Hauptman for developing direct methods to determine complex crystal structures by using X-ray and electron diffraction analysis.
Karle’s wife and lifelong scientific collaborator, Isabella, built on their work, using their methods to analyze and publish the structures of thousands of complicated molecules. Her work demonstrated the usefulness of the techniques—something that other scientists had called into question. Today, this methodology enables the characterization of many molecules, including those used as heart drugs, antibiotics, explosives, and propellants.
Later in his career, Karle focused on analytical techniques to determine macromolecular structures and helped develop the field of quantum crystallography.
He was a fellow of the American Physical Society, the American Philosophical Society, and the National Academy of Sciences, serving as chairman of its chemistry section. Karle was also an emeritus member of ACS, joining in 1941, and served as president of the International Union of Crystallography.
Karle received numerous honors including the Hillebrand Prize from the Chemical Society of Washington, the Washington, D.C., local section of ACS; the A. Patterson Award of the American Crystallographic Association; the Golden Plate Award of the Academy of Achievement; the Secretary of the Navy Award for Distinguished Achievement in Science; the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service; and the first NRL Lifetime Achievement Award.
Karle is survived by his wife, whom he married in 1942; three daughters, Louise Hanson, Jean, and Madeleine Tawney; and four grandchildren.