Nobel-winning chemist Jerome Karle dies

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WASHINGTON -- Jerome Karle, a U.S. Naval Research Laboratory scientist who shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry for discovering a way to determine the structure of molecules, a breakthrough that made possible significant advances in medicine and other fields of science, died June 6 at the Leewood Healthcare Center in Annandale, Va. He was 94.

The cause was liver cancer, his daughter Louise Karle Hanson, of Long Island, said.

Karle was a scientific polyglot, schooled in biology and chemistry but proficient as well in physics and mathematics. He shared the 1985 Nobel Prize in chemistry with the late Herbert Hauptman, a mathematician with whom he pursued his pioneering research in the 1950s and '60s at the Naval Research Laboratory in Southwest Washington.

Karle worked for the Naval Research Laboratory for more than six decades when he retired in 2009 as chief scientist in the laboratory for the structure of matter. He was once asked why he had never joined the private sector, where his earning potential would have been much greater.

"I'm not quite sure young people understand this," he said, "but it's quite possible to do good research for the Navy and the Department of Defense and at the same time do good science."

Born Jerome Karfunkle on June 18, 1918, in Brooklyn, he was the son of immigrants from Eastern Europe. He later changed his surname to Karle. His father was a Coney Island businessman; his mother, a homemaker, was a pianist and organist.

He received a bachelor's degree in biology from City College of New York in 1937. Karle went on to receive a master's degree in biology from Harvard University in 1938 and a doctorate in physical chemistry from the University of Michigan in 1943, his daughter said.

He met his future wife on the first day of a physical chemistry lab at Michigan. They were married in 1942 and settled in the Washington area shortly thereafter to join the Naval laboratory.

During World War II, Karle worked in Chicago on the Manhattan Project, which resulted in the development of the atomic bomb. In Washington, he taught physics and mathematics at the University of Maryland while pursuing his laboratory research.

The award of the Nobel came as something of a surprise. Karle was 39,000 feet over the ocean on a trans-Atlantic flight when the pilot made an announcement over the loudspeaker.

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"We are honored to have flying with us today America's newest Nobel Prize winner, and he doesn't even know it," the captain said from the cockpit, according to a news account.

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