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Longtime NIST Leader, JILA Advocate Katharine Gebbie Dead at 84

Published: 08-18-2016
Source: JILA Scientific Communications

Katharine Blodgett Gebbie (1932–2016)

Katharine Gebbie, Senior Advisor at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), died on August 17, 2016, after a short illness. She was 84. A legendary laboratory director at NIST, Gebbie was honored in 2015 when the most advanced laboratory building at NIST’s Boulder campus was renamed in her honor.

An astrophysicist by training, Gebbie worked at NIST for more than 46 years, including as Director of the Physics Laboratory and, later, the Physical Measurement Laboratory. Both laboratories over saw the work of hundreds of researchers, including NIST-affiliated scientists at JILA, a joint institute of NIST and the University of Colorado Boulder, located on the CU Boulder campus.

“Katharine was an inspiring and visionary leader and a role model for me and many other NIST scientists and staff,” said NIST Director Willie May. “She was Founding Director of first the NIST Physics Laboratory and later the NIST Physical Measurement Laboratory. She was fearless in her support of her scientific and administrative staff, yet approachable and down-to-earth. She was also the “Mother of our four Nobel Prize Winners in Physics.”

As a laboratory director, Gebbie provided critical support for more than 25 years to JILA’s research in atomic, molecular, and optical physics, chemical physics, biophysics, and nanoscience. Gebbie stepped down as the director of NIST’s Physical Measurement Laboratory in 2012, but as a NIST Senior Advisor, she continued her decades-long passion of fostering innovative research at JILA and NIST.

Katharine Blodgett was born in 1932 to George and Isabel Arnold Blodgett in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was named after her aunt, the distinguished scientist Katharine Burr Blodgett, known for her role in developing the Langmuir-Blodgett films. Gebbie credits her Aunt Katharine with introducing her to such scientific wonders as making colors by dipping glass rods into thin films of oil floating on water. These science lessons opened the door to Gebbie’s own career in astrophysics and later into science and technology management.

Katharine Blodgett embarked on her storied career by earning an A.B. in physics from Bryn Mawr College. She then journeyed to London where she earned a B. S. degree in astronomy at University College London, where she continued graduate studies in physics, earning a Ph.D. in 1965. During her graduate research, she was one of the first people to use a computer to model the atmospheres of hot stars.

After graduation, Gebbie and her husband, Scots physicist Hugh Alastair Gebbie, spent three years exploring career opportunities in Boulder, Washington, and London. In between academic adventures, the couple trekked in Nepal, hiked in Kashmir, and went mountaineering in Turkey. When she was stateside, Gebbie enjoyed flying her mother’s airplane around North America. By 1968, the couple had evolved into a transatlantic marriage, with Gebbie employed by the National Bureau of Standards (NBS, the predecessor of NIST) at JILA and her husband in London at Imperial College.

In 1974, Gebbie became an NBS Fellow at JILA, where she pursued research in helioseismology for the next 12 years. In 1986, she opted to switch to administration. After spending two years working in the NBS director’s office in Gaithersburg, Maryland, Gebbie returned to JILA as NIST’s Quantum Physics Division Chief, a role she filled for three years. She made the most of her time back in Colorado, working with other scientists at JILA and flying her airplane over the mountains and deserts of the American Southwest.

In 1991, Gebbie was invited to return to Gaithersburg to design and head the NIST Physics Laboratory, which oversaw, among other things, parts of the NIST Boulder Laboratories, including JILA’s Quantum Physics Division. She served as head of the Physics Laboratory until 2010 when she was appointed to head the even-larger Physical Measurement Laboratory, where she served as Director until 2013. She was noted for creating a climate in which scientists and engineers thrived while contributing to the nation’s science and technology base in measurement. During her leadership tenure, NIST scientists in her Laboratories were awarded four Nobel Prizes, and two John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowships, a.k.a. “genius grants.”

Gebbie also played leadership roles in founding NIST’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program and the Joint Quantum Institute. She was well known for advocating for women and minorities in science. 

Katharine Blodgett was born in July 4, 1932 to George and Isabel Arnold Blodgett in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was named after her aunt, the distinguished scientist Katharine Burr Blodgett, known for her role in developing the Langmuir-Blodgett films. Gebbie credits her Aunt Katharine with introducing her to such scientific wonders as making colors by dipping glass rods into thin films of oil floating on water. These science lessons opened the door to Gebbie’s own career in astrophysics and later in to science and technology management.

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