Jerome Karle, who shared the 1985 Nobel Prize in chemistry with CCNY classmate Herbert Hauptman for creating X-ray crystallography, a tool now commonly used to understand new molecules like drugs, died June 6. He was 94.
Their technique bounces an X-ray beam off the crystalline form of a molecule. That produces a diffraction pattern, which allows researchers to determine the positions of the molecule’s atoms. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said, “in order to understand the nature of chemical bonds, the function of molecules in biological contexts, and the mechanism and dynamics of reactions, knowledge of the exact molecular structure is absolutely necessary.”
When Karle, who graduated in 1937, and his wife, Isabella Karle, retired from the Naval Research Laboratory in 2009 with a combined 127 years of federal service, the laboratory wrote that although he and Hauptman had laid the theoretical groundwork for X-ray diffraction analysis, “Isabella, building on his work, developed methods that led to the analysis and publication of the molecular structures of many thousands of complicated molecules annually. This methodology has enabled the characterization of potent toxins, antitoxins, heart drugs, antibiotics, anti-addictive substances, anticarcinogens, anti-malarials and explosives and propellants.”
“I entered the City College of New York in 1933 and, at first, found it to be a bit of a struggle,” Karle wrote in his autobiographical essay for the Nobel Prize site. “Their academic standards were very high and they had a concentration of the best students in New York City. In addition, I spent three hours a day traveling on the subway system to and from home. This marked the end of piano practicing. City College had no tuition fee. The only financial requirement was one dollar per year for a library card. At the College, there were broad course requirements for all students that ranged through mathematics, the physical sciences, the social sciences and literature. There were even two years of compulsory public speaking courses. I studied, in addition to the requirements, some additional mathematics, some physics, and much chemistry and biology.”