Isabella Karle (1921-2017)
Detroit, Michigan, USA
Digital Illustration, 24" x 32", 2022
During World War II, Isabella Karle worked on the Manhattan Project, creating techniques to extract plutonium chloride from plutonium oxide. This was a very dangerous and life-threatening job; if inhaled, plutonium particles kill lung cells which can lead to lung disease and cancer. Joining the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, she worked for her husband, Jerome Karle. As a team, they developed the “direct methods” for examining the structure of crystals. Jerome would create the calculations and Isabella would experiment and collect the data. Due to nepotism rules, many were skeptical of their scientific partnership.
While raising three daughters, Karle taught herself to blow glass as many of the tools she needed for extraction didn’t exist. She scrapped together lab equipment to build her own X-ray apparatus. While in the maternity ward after giving birth to her first daughter, Karle read a textbook and learned how to build the equipment she needed.
The “direct method” technique has been used since to advance the development of new pharmaceutical products. Although she has won several honorary awards, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Jerome Karle in 1985 for his work on X-ray diffraction data. Many, including Jerome felt Isabella should have shared the award.