Childhood & Early Life
Karle was born into a Jewish family on18 June, 1918 in New York City, USA. His parents were Sadie Helen (Kun) and Louis Karfunkle.
His mother was an exceptional pianist and organist and wanted her son to become a professional pianist. Karle not only learnt to play the piano as a young boy but also participated in the ‘Music Week’ competitions held in New York City.
Although he was fairly successful in music competitions, he soon realized that public performances didn’t interest him at all. Instead, he discovered his interest in science and decided to pursue it as a full-time career. In sports, he enjoyed single-wall handball, ice skating, touch football, and swimming in the ocean.
He attended schools in the New York City public school system and gained immensely from their high standards of education, character building and discipline. In his senior years, he attended the Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn - the same school attended by future Nobel Laureates, Arthur Kornberg and Paul Berg. While in school, he took courses in Chemistry and Physics.
At the age of 15, he entered City College of New York in 1933. This proved to be a difficult period for him as he had to struggle with the high academic standards of the college and travel three hours daily on the subway, to and from home. Amidst such challenges, his piano practices suffered.
In college, he took additional courses in Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics, besides the usual curriculum. He graduated from City College in 1937 and spent the following year at Harvard University, studying Biology. He received a Master's degree in 1938.
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After a short break, he joined the New York State Health Department in Albany in order to save enough money to pay for further studies. Meanwhile, he also resumed his piano lessons.
At Albany, he made his first significant yet humble contribution to Science. During that time, fluoridation of drinking water was in progress. He developed a process to measure the dissolved fluorine level in water, which later became the benchmark technique for water fluoridation.
In 1940, he enrolled in the Chemistry Department of the University of Michigan and received his PhD. in 1944. However, since his academic work was already over by summer 1943,he joined the Manhattan Project at the University of Chicago along with his fellow classmate and wife Dr. Isabella Karle.
In 1944, the Karle couple returned to the University of Michigan, where he worked on a project for the United States Naval Research Laboratory and Isabella worked as an instructor in the Chemistry Department.
While at Michigan, he performed some experiments on the structure of monolayers of long-chain hydrocarbon films involved in the boundary lubrication of metallic surfaces. He also obtained a theory that elucidated the electron diffraction patterns acquired from the oriented monolayers.
In 1946, the couple shifted permanently to Washington, D.C. to work for the Naval Research Laboratory. They continued to focus on developing the quantitative aspects of gas electron diffraction analysis.
Around that time, Herbert Hauptman joined the Naval Research Laboratory and together they decided to find out the implications for crystal structures. By the early 1950s, they developed the direct methods for crystal structure analysis.
In the latter half of the 1950's, Isabella helped set up an experimental X-ray diffraction unit in their laboratory.Through the 1960's, he conducted various experiments there to develop a method for crystal structure determination of broad applicability, including non-centrosymmetric and centrosymmetric crystals.
With Isabella’s assistance, the required method was developed and named the symbolic addition procedure. The first application of this procedure was published in 1963 and the first essentially equal atom noncentrosymmetric crystal structure solved by direct phase determination was published the following year.
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With every passing day, several interesting applications were discovered and by the end of the decade different laboratories started showing interest in the potential of the direct method for structure determination. During this period, he also collaborated with his wife in some of her researches.
Several theoretical investigations were also conducted in that period. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he garnered information regarding gas electron diffraction and experimented on internal rotation and coherent diffraction related to excitation processes.
In the 1970s, he continued his research in crystal structure analysis that involved the formulation of a ‘tangent’ for phase determination. With the help of the tangent formula, he also did some refinements of macromolecular structure.
This was done in close collaboration with Wayne Hendrickson. He also collaborated with John Konnert, Peter D'Antonio, Judith Flippen-Anderson, Clifford George, Richard Gilardi and Alfred Lowrey on similar investigations.
By the end of the decade, he developed an exact, linear algebraic theory that could incorporate any number and type of anomalous scatterer and any number of wavelengths.
All through his long illustrious research career, he was engaged in investigating the development of new analytical methods and their applications. From time to time, however, he also taught subjects like Mathematics and Physics at University College of the University of Maryland.
In 1985, Karle and Herbert A. Hauptman shared the prestigious Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the direct analysis of crystal structures using X-ray scattering techniques.
He and his wife, Dr. Isabella retired from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory on 31 July, 2009. He had joined the organisation way back in 1944. Together, the Karle couple dedicated 127 years of service to the United States Government. At the time of his retirement, he was the Chief Scientist of the Laboratory for the Structure of Matter.
Karle and Hauptman devised mathematical equations to explain the arrangements of numerous spots that appeared on photographic films as a result of a crystal’s diffraction of X-rays.
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Based on an analysis of the intensity of the spots, their equations made it possible to identify the exact location of atoms within the crystal’s molecules. Their method was published in 1949.
It took some time for crystallographers to realize the potential of the method. They began using it to determine the three-dimensional structure of small biological molecules, such as hormones, vitamins, and antibiotics. The technique also played an important role in the creation of new pharmaceutical products and other synthesized materials.
Before Karle and Hauptman published their method, it took two years to determine the structure of a simple biological molecule; however in the 1980s, with the aid of powerful computers that helped perform the complex calculations dictated by their method, the task took only about two days.
Awards & Achievements
In 1985, Karle and Hauptman together won the prestigious Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work in using X-ray scattering techniques to determine the structure of crystals.
Apart from winning the Nobel Prize, Karle was the President of the American Crystallographic Association in 1972 and the International Union of Crystallography from 1981 to 1984. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1976 and the American Philosophical Society in 1990.
At the time of their retirement, the Karle couple was presented with the Department of the Navy Distinguished Civilian Service Award, the Navy's highest form of appreciation for civilian employees.
Personal Life & Legacy
At the University of Michigan, Karle met a fellow student Isabella Lugoski who went on to become a famous chemist. They got married in 1942 and had three daughters together.
All their daughters grew up to work in the field of science; Louise Karle (born 1946) became a Theoretical Chemist, Jean Karle (born 1950) became an Organic Chemist, and Madeleine Karle (born 1955) became a Museum Specialist with expertise in the field of Geology.
He died of liver cancer on 6 June, 2013 at the Leewood Healthcare Center in Annandale, Virginia.