Katharine Blodgett Gebbie

In Memoriam: Katharine Blodgett Gebbie, 1932-2016

August 17, 2016

Katharine GebbieKatharine Blodgett Gebbie, former director of the physics laboratory at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), passed away on 17 August 2016.  Gebbie’s career at NIST spanned more than 45 years, during which she served as Chief of the Quantum Physics Division, Acting Director of the Center for Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics, and Director of the Physics Laboratory.  Gebbie was an inspiring and visionary leader and advocate for women and minorities in science. NIST Public Affairs Office has released an official obituary.

Gebbie graduated from Bryn Mawr College with a BA in physics and subsequently earned a BS in astronomy and a PhD in physics from University College, London.  She joined NIST in 1968 as a physicist in the Quantum Physics Division of Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics (JILA), NIST’s joint institute with the University of Colorado Boulder.  Gebbie would become lab director at JILA and oversee significant programs at NIST Boulder and JILA.  During her tenure at NIST, Gebbie directed operating units of several hundred researchers and four NIST staff won Nobel Prizes in Physics between 1997 and 2012 as well as two MacArthur Fellowships. Gebbie was recognized with numerous awards including the US Department of Commerce Gold Medal, the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Washington Academy of Sciences Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Physical Sciences.  She was a Fellow of the American Physical Society and JILA, and a member of Sigma Xi and American Women in Science.

Gebbie was married to a fellow physicist, Alastair Gebbie, and they enjoyed many adventures such as trekking in Nepal, hiking in Kashmir, mountaineering in Turkey, and flying her mother’s airplane around the US. Alastair Gebbie was based in London at the Imperial College and the couple had a transatlantic marriage with homes in Boulder, Washington, and London.

Gebbie’s contributions to the physics community were significant and she will be greatly missed by her colleagues and the community.

Tributes to Katharine Blodgett Gebbie

The OSA community mourns the passing of Katharine Gebbie and OSA members and leaders provided the following remembrances.

The passing of Katharine Gebbie is particularly sad to me because we just spoke early last week about the role she wanted me to play in the meeting she was organizing – Conference for Undergraduate Underrepresented Minorities in Physics, October 7-9, 2016 at UMCP and NIST. I have had the pleasure of knowing and working with Katharine for many years on various NIST, NSF and National Academy panels. As Director of the NIST Physics Laboratory, Katharine was remarkably unpretentious and incredibly easy to talk to – even as Director, she would make the time to have in-depth discussions. Katharine also had a passion for promoting opportunities for women and underrepresented minorities in physics – we have had many discussions on the topic of diversity over the years. This is indeed a sad moment and Katharine Gebbie will be sorely missed.
Anthony M. Johnson, 2002 OSA President
Professor of Physics
University of Maryland, Baltimore County
The creation of an internationally renowned laboratory in which talented scientists can flourish and able to generate world-class science is not an easy task. Katherine Gebbie did this par excellence in forming and setting the strategic direction of the NIST Physics Lab and its successor. This is really the world leader in optical metrology and optical measurement science, and provided the environment in which Nobel work was undertaken (Phillips, Wineland, Cornell and Wieman). Before Katherine set up the lab, the institution was known for careful, indeed painstaking metrology but what it developed under her leadership was truly transformational. She set the direction, appointed all the right people and mentored them so they could flourish. Unusually, once appointed to her lab, folks stayed, realising what a wonderful environment she had provided for them to address some of the most important, challenging and impactful problems in optical science. Her mentorship has been very strikingly effective.
For us in the UK, she has provided invaluable advice on strategy for the National Measurement System and the choice of new directions for our own National Physical Laboratory (I was their Chief Scientific Advisor and can confirm how very seriously we sought and listened to her advice!). She had a staggering breadth of vision, from fostering work on the basic SI unit system right through to ensuring the United States had an effective calibration and traceable standards system. She served the optical community with great diligence not only at NBS and NIST but also in the wider world through her work on IUPAP, APS and especially CIPM committees. Whole sessions at OSA meetings are devoted to areas she has fostered. She has been a champion of equal opportunity.  Katharine Gebbie was one of the heroes of optical science, devoting her life to creating and nurturing an environment in which world-transforming work was undertaken and sustained over several decades. An incredible achievement!
Sir Peter Knight FRS, 2004 OSA President
Senior Research Investigator
Blackett Lab, Imperial College London
Chair of the Quantum Metrology Institute, National Physical Laboratory
Dear OSA friends,
Thanks so much for announcing on the OSA page the death of Katharine. Those of us who benefited enormously from her are devastated. Her leadership and vision enabled the Joint Quantum Institute at the University of Maryland, just one of her many, many achievements.
I hope that more in the community realize how important she was in many ways, working always with elegance and tact.  She will be missed but we are benefiting from her vision.
Luis Orozco
Professor, Joint Quantum Institute
University of Maryland