On October 3, 2017, Isabella Karle died of a brain tumor at age 95, four years after her husband, Nobel Prize winner Jerome Karle, died at age 94 of liver cancer. More than 70 years before their deaths, both were exposed to radiation when they worked in the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb during World War II.
She should have been included in the 1985 Nobel Prize in Chemistry that her husband won jointly with Herbert Hauptman, because she did all of the laboratory work using X-ray crystallography to show that her husband’s mathematical theory had worked out the structure of molecules in substances. Jerome Karle never actually used crystallography. He published his theory first in the early 1950s and nobody paid any attention to it until the mid-1960s when Isabella published her ground-breaking studies using crystallography to prove that his theory was correct. When the 1985 Nobel Prize winners were announced, her husband was deeply disappointed that his wife was not also honored. He was going to refuse the award, but Isabella told him, "Go ahead, that’s silly, you should accept it." Her technique of mapping chemical structures is used today to work out the structure of DNA, develop new drugs to treat cancers, hormone deficiencies, infections and other diseases, and to develop propellants for missiles. She published more than 350 papers and received the National Medal of Science at a White House ceremony in 1995, among many other honors.
Early Life and Education
She was born Isabella Helen Lugoski in Detroit on Dec. 2, 1921, to Polish immigrants. Her father repaired buses for the city of Detroit and her mother never went to school, but she taught herself to read books in English and Polish and opened a restaurant. Her family spoke only Polish at home so Isabella did not speak English until she started kindergarten. Before Isabella went to school, her mother taught her how to count, read and write in Polish and had her keep the expense account for her restaurant. When she started school, she was way ahead of all her classmates because the Polish alphabet is the same as the English one except for three letters and she was already doing arithmetic. She went from the first grade to the third grade, skipped two other grades and was graduated from high school at age 14.
In the midst of the depression her family had no money to send her to college, but one of her high school teachers entered her in, and took her to, an exam that earned her a full four-year scholarship to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Her father tried to discourage her from majoring in chemistry because he wanted her to become a lawyer. At Michigan, she was at the top of her class and got her PhD degree there at age 23.
She met Jerome Karle in her college physical chemistry laboratory where his lab desk was next to hers. When they first met, they had an argument and didn't talk much to each other for most of the course. However, after an exam, he asked her how she answered one of the exam questions and was so impressed that he asked to take her to a concert. When she was 20, they got married. Like her, he also had graduated from high school at age 14. He was a straight-A student at Harvard graduate school in biology but was turned down for a fellowship because he was Jewish. Harvard's president Lowell, a Boston blue-blood, felt that there were too many Jewish students at Harvard so he instituted measures to limit their enrollment.
The Manhattan Project
It was now the start of World War II and as one of the top chemistry students at the University of Michigan, Jerome Karle was selected to go to work on a secret project at the University of Chicago. The Karles were separated for a few months while she finished her degree in Ann Arbor and then she went to Chicago to work on what they later learned was the Manhattan Project to try to build an atom bomb. Her PhD thesis was on making vacuum lines so she was ideal for working on the atom bomb team. She used that knowledge to try to extract plutonium chloride from a mixture containing plutonium oxide, and she succeeded. She says that she wore a radiation counter most of the time that she worked in the laboratory. Things were so top secret that the husband and wife were not allowed to talk to each other about their research work, so she did not know at the time what his work was. She eventually found out that he tried to make pure plutonium metal.
After the war, she and her husband got appointments at the U.S, Naval Research Laboratory, just outside the Beltway in Washington, D.C. There she used X-ray scattering methods to determine the structure of crystals, a process that today still helps chemists develop now molecules for use by medical doctors and industry. In 2009, she and her husband retired from the Naval Research Laboratory, after a combined 127 years of service for the United States Government. In 2013, her husband died at age 94 of liver cancer and this month at age 95, she died of a brain tumor.
Atomic Bomb Radiation and Cancer
On August 6 and 9, 1945, American pilots dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, killing more than 129,000 people and exposing countless others to radiation that would eventually kill them. Research shows that gamma radiation can cause cancer many years after exposure, and exposure to radiation from the atomic bomb, or working in the laboratory to make the bomb, is far more carcinogenic than the much lower doses of radiation that people get through exposure from other sources such as to medical tests spread over many years. A large percent of the survivors of the Japanese bombing developed leukemia, which peaked in the early 1950s. Then solid tumors such as Isabella L. Karle's brain cancer and her husband's liver cancer started to show up more than ten years later and continue to show up more than 50 years later. Those exposed to the atomic bombs in Japan also were at increased risk for suffering heart attacks for many years afterward.
Some good news is that children of survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs did not suffer from increased risk for cancers and that those who received very low doses of radiation from the atomic bomb explosions did not suffer increased cancer risk. One study involved more than 300,000 nuclear workers in the U.S., Great Britain, and France and found only a small excess risk of certain types of leukemia (The Lancet Hematology, July 2015;2(7):e276–e281), but nobody really knows how low a dose of exposure to radiation, such as what you receive from dental and chest X rays, increase cancer risk. It is now more than 70 years after the first atomic bomb was dropped and scientists still do not know how low a dose of radiation can increase cancer risk.
Common Sources of Radiation
Radiation takes many forms and is always around us, but some types are much more dangerous than others. Each exposure to radiation has a cumulative effect and the risk of cancer increases with each radiation exposure, so even though a single source of exposure to radiation is unlikely to cause cancer, the combined exposures add up throughout your lifetime and can increase your risk of cancer over time. Summary of Common Radiation Sources
• X-Rays: You are exposed to radiation when you get a single X ray, and you can be exposed to significant radiation if you get repeated tests that use X rays such as CT scans, PET scans, mammograms or fluoroscopy. A chest CT scan has the same X ray exposure as 360 single chest X rays. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRIs) and ultrasounds are safe because they do not use X rays. Your dentist may tell you that dental X rays are safe, but they usually do not mention that the effects of radiation are cumulative over time. That means that you are probably not at increased risk for cancer when you get a single chest or dental X ray (Proc Nat Acad of Science, Nov 2003;11(24):3761-13766), but the more X rays you receive over a lifetime, the greater your chance of developing cancer in the future (Journal of Radiology Nursing, Dec 2007;26(4):121-124).
• Radon: Radon is a colorless, odorless gas that comes from decaying rocks and soil. For the average person, radon accounts for over half their annual exposure to radiation. Radon comes up from the ground and gets trapped in houses and buildings. Exposure to a small amount of radon inside is normal, but high levels can cause lung cancer. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer (after smoking). The only way to know if you have radon in your house is to get it tested. You can hire a professional to do this or you can purchase a radon testing kit and do it yourself.
• UV Rays: Ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun can damage the DNA in skin cells and lead to skin cancer. Limiting exposure to direct sun light can reduce your risk of skin cancer. See How to Avoid Skin Cancer
December 2, 1921 – October 3, 2017