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Katharine B. Gebbie (1932–2016)

Gebbie was a physicist and leading federal administrator who supervised a laboratory whose scientists won four Nobel Prizes in physics.

Published onOct 03, 2022
Katharine B. Gebbie (1932–2016)

Photo credit: Denease Anderson/NIST/National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Katharine B. Gebbie, a physicist and leading federal administrator who supervised a laboratory whose scientists won four Nobel Prizes in physics in a span of 15 years, died Wednesday, August 17, 2016 at a hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. She was 84.

Katharine Blodgett Gebbie was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on July 4, 1932. Her father was a tax lawyer and her mother a stay-at-home parent. Her aunt and namesake was Katharine Burr Blodgett, a General Electric scientist who helped invent a special kind of nonreflecting “invisible” glass that is the prototype for coatings used today on camera lenses.

Gebbie graduated in 1957 from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, although she spent much of her senior year at Massachusetts Institute of Technology to be near her mother, after the disappearance of her father in a small airplane in the jungles of Costa Rica.

“He had taken up flying when he was 50 so he wouldn’t grow old, and it did the trick, although perhaps not quite the way he intended,” Dr. Gebbie told a Bryn Mawr College newsletter in 2002. Throughout most of her adult life, small-craft airplane flying was also among Dr. Gebbie’s primary avocations.

While an MIT student, she received correspondence addressed to “Miss Blodgett,” she recalled, but the letters all had the same beginning, “Dear Sir,” a vivid reminder of MIT’s bureaucratic clumsiness with female students.

In 1964 Katharine Gebbie received a doctorate in physics at University College in London. For several years in the mid-1960s she trekked in Nepal, went mountaineering in Turkey and flew around North America in her mother’s airplane. Both Dr. Gebbie and her parents had taken professional flying lessons.

“When the music stopped,” she quipped in the Bryn Mawr newsletter, she was in Boulder, Colorado. It was 1968 and she was beginning her federal career as a physicist at the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics, a cooperative venture of the University of Colorado and what was then the National Bureau of Standards.

Starting in 1990, Dr. Gebbie spent 22 years as founding director of the Physical Measurement Laboratory and its predecessor, the Physics Laboratory, at the Gaithersburg, Maryland-based National Institute of Standards and Technology. At her death, she was a senior adviser to the chief of the Physical Measurement Laboratory, splitting her time between its facilities in Gaithersburg and Boulder.

Among the major projects of the Physics Laboratory have been the development of a space-based atomic clock that could be 10 times more accurate than atomic clocks on Earth, and improving techniques for mammography. In those roles, she was widely known in the scientific community but of low visibility to the general public.

In a tribute by William D. Phillips, a colleague, he quoted Gebbie on her management style: “Get the best people, give them the resources they need, get out of their way. Part of ‘getting out of their way,’ was shielding her people from the rain of bureaucratic responsibilities that every large institution suffers.”

Phillips shared a 1997 Nobel Prize for contributions to a technique to slow the movement of gaseous atoms to better study them. The other Nobel winners led by Dr. Gebbie were Eric Cornell in 2001, John L. Hall in 2005, and David Wineland in 2012, for contributions including the studies of the properties of condensates, laser-based precision spectroscopy, and measuring quantum systems.

In 2015 the National Institute of Standards and Technology named one of its buildings at the Boulder campus for Dr. Gebbie, the first time in more than 50 years that a building has been named for a staff member.

Her husband, physicist Alastair Gebbie, whom she married in 1957, died in 2005. Survivors include a sister.

Adapted and reproduced with permission from The Washington Post.

See also Gebbie’s AstroGen entry.

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