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In memoriam: Katherine Blodgett Gebbie, NIST Physics Laboratory founding director

19 August 2016

Katherine Blodgett GebbieKatherine Blodgett Gebbie, senior advisor to the National Bureau of Standards and Technology (NIST), died on 17 August.

An astrophysicist by training, she worked for NIST for more than 45 years. Among other positions, she was founding director of two large NIST operating units of several hundred researchers each, the Physics Laboratory and later the Physical Measurement Laboratory. Under her leadership, NIST staff won four Nobel Prizes in Physics between 1997 and 2012 as well as two MacArthur Fellowships, aka "genius grants."

She was fiercely loyal to NIST and to the remarkable staff that she recruited to work there and nurtured for nearly five decades. Although Gebbie spent most of her career based at NIST's current headquarters in Gaithersburg, MD, she maintained her roots in Boulder, CO. She began her NIST career as a postdoctoral researcher at JILA, NIST's joint institute with the University of Colorado Boulder. Later, as a lab director, she was responsible for substantial programs at NIST Boulder and JILA.

"At JILA I learned there is no substitute for talent. Hire the highest caliber people, provide them the resources they need, and let them run," Gebbie said. "I never knew any other way of managing."

Last December, the most advanced laboratory building at the NIST campus in Boulder was renamed after her, the first time a NIST Boulder building has been named for a person. 

"This renaming is our small way of saying thank you, Katharine, for all you've done for this organization over such a long period of time," said Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and NIST Director Willie E. May. "This gesture will serve as a reminder for all of us for years to come who Katharine is and was and the remarkable environment that she fostered within NIST and the laboratories that she led."

SPIE CEO Eugene Arthurs expressed condolences from SPIE and commented on Gebbie's contributions to science.

"She was indeed a remarkable physicist and manager, perhaps under-acknowledged because of her gender," Arthurs said. "When one recalls 'By their fruits you shall know them,' and think of the NIST Nobels and the many remarkable scientists she nourished, one might get a sense of her accomplishments and influence."

2001 photo of Katherine Blodgett Gebbie

(Photo of Gebbie, at right, with Carmina Londono at an SPIE meeting in 2001.)

Gebbie earned an A.B. in physics from Bryn Mawr College, a B.S. in astronomy at University College London, and a Ph.D. in physics at University College. During her graduate research, she was one of the first people to use a computer to model the atmospheres of hot stars.

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.

Gebbie 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.

Information on a memorial is pending. On 18 August, NIST offices everywhere observed a moment of silence in her memory.