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Remembering Katharine Blodgett Gebbie 1932-2016

Katharine Gebbie. Source NIST. Photo by Denease Anderson / NIST

NIST official obituary with video tribute and interview

The members of the Joint Quantum Institute (JQI) join many in saying farewell and paying tribute to their esteemed colleague. Katharine Blodgett Gebbie spent her career at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and was the Director of the Physics and Physical Measurement Laboratories, where she oversaw the work that led to four Nobel Prizes in Physics (William Phillips, Eric Cornell, Jan Hall, and David Wineland). This achievement was directly due to her management style, which placed the science and scientists above all else.

Bill Phillips, JQI and NIST Fellow, Distinguished University Professor, and 1997 Nobel Laureate, described Gebbie’s leadership: “All of the people whom she led considered her to be the ideal of what they wanted in a laboratory director. The creative environment and spirit of discovery that she nurtured continues to enrich us today.  She was wise and kind and good, and tough when she needed to be. She was the best scientific leader one could hope for. She honored all who worked under her, from the researchers to the support staff—all understood that Katharine valued their work. The wall of her office was filled with the posters that recognized the awards her people had received, and she gloried in their accomplishments.”

(Video tribute on the occasion of PML building naming. credit NIST)

Gebbie promoted and mentored scientists at all stages of their careers, including undergraduates. She helped found the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program at NIST, which is in its 23rd year. In a 2009 interview with the Partnership for Public Service, she was quoted as saying "The biggest challenge is and has always been to attract the best and the brightest scientists and people who support them," Gebbie said. "For me, the best measure of any laboratory or agency is the quality of the young people it can attract."

Gretchen Campbell, JQI Co-Director, is one of the countless young people influenced by Gebbie. In 2009 Campbell was hired as a Research Physicist following a postdoc at JILA/NIST, Boulder.  “Katharine was an inspiration to so many of us. She was committed to supporting her scientists and staff, no matter who you were. Even as a SURF student, I can’t remember ever having a conversation with her where I felt rushed, or like I didn’t have her full attention. Katharine made me proud to be a scientist and a part of NIST.”

In addition to her special role at NIST, she had a deep and important relationship with the UMD Physics Department. The existence of the JQI is in large part due to Gebbie. She had seen first hand the success of JILA in Boulder and was enthusiastically encouraging and supported the creation of the JQI in 2006. She maintained a deep abiding interest in the JQI and we are happy to know that she was here to see the success that she was such an important part of. In 2013 she was appointed to UMD as a Visiting Senior Research Scholar. Steven Rolston, JQI Co-Director and Physics Department Chair knew Gebbie for 28 years both as a NIST physicist and as a UMD professor, remarked: "I can say without a doubt that she was the best manager of a scientific organization that I ever saw. In her words, 'get the best people, steer them in the right direction, give them the resources they need, and let them run.' Everyone who knew Katharine will miss her and her wry sense of humor. She was a special individual." 

In addition to her connection to the department through the JQI, she was dedicated to working to increase the opportunities in physics for women and underrepresented minorities. She was a co-organizer with Donna Hammer and Angie Hight Walker of NIST of a Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics in 2014, which brought over one hundred undergraduate female physics majors to campus. With Donna and Angie, she was working on a Conference for Undergraduate Minorities in Physics to be held this October, which will be the first of its kind in the country.

Notably, Gebbie was the niece of Katharine Blodgett, of Langmuir-Blodgett films, and she credited her aunt with inspiring her devotion to science. Gebbie received a Ph.D. in astrophysics from University College (London), and in 1968 joined NIST, Boulder as a postdoc. She moved to Gaithersburg in the late 80s and in 1991 became the founding and only director of the Physics Laboratory, which was in existence for 20 years. In 2015, NIST Director Willie May honored her by naming the new Boulder precision measurement laboratory the Katharine Blodgett Gebbie Laboratory, the first NIST building ever to be named after a living person in either Boulder or Gaithersburg. 


(Interview with NIST) 

The text published here includes excerpts from internal communications from Steven Rolston and Bill Phillips to colleagues regarding Katharine Gebbie. Reproduced and edited with permission.