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Jerome Karle, 94, shared Nobel Prize in chemistry

Larry Morris/Washington Post/file 1998

Jerome Karle’s shared discovery made possible significant advances in medicine and other fields of science.

WASHINGTON — Jerome Karle, a US 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.

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Dr. Karle was a scientific polyglot, schooled in biology and chemistry but proficient in physics and math. He shared the 1985 Nobel in chemistry with Herbert Hauptman.

The two men and their colleagues — including Dr. Karle’s wife, Isabella, a naval lab chemist — took on a problem that vexed scientists for years: the challenge of discerning the structure of three-dimensional molecules, atom combinations that were the simplest units of chemical compounds, too small for optical microscopes.

Development of a technique called X-ray crystallography made it possible to determine the likely shape of molecules.

Dr. Karle and his colleagues devised an alternate, mathematical process relying on measurements including the intensity of the reflected X-rays.

Published in the 1950s, the discovery was overlooked for years. Dr. Karle credited his wife with drawing attention. “I do the physical applications, he works with the theoretical,’’ she told the Washington Post. ‘‘It makes a good team.”

Dr. Karle’s work has been applied to research on the structure of DNA, development of painkillers and drugs to treat breast and other types of cancer, the study of antibiotics, and research on missile propellants.

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