Dr. Katherine Blodgett Gebbie received her B.S. degree in physics from Bryn Mawr College (a traditionally female college) and her Ph.D. in astronomy from University College London. She began her career in the U.S. Civil Service as a research astronomer at the U.S. National Bureau of Standards (NBS) in Boulder, Colorado. Showing distinct promise as a scientific research manager, in 1987 she was appointed as the Director of the Center for Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics at the NBS headquarters in Gaithersburg, Maryland, an organization that rapidly grew into the Physics Laboratory of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST: the successor to NBS), which today has grown the Physical Measurement Laboratory (PML). PML, with a staff of over 500 full-time staff and an annual operating budget of about $200 million, is responsible for the U.S. realization of six of the seven basic units of measurement of the Système International d’Unités (SI), and for maintaining the infrastructure for disseminating measurements traceable to the SI throughout U.S. commerce, industry, medicine, and scientific and engineering research and development.
At the time of her appointment, Dr. Gebbie was the only woman serving as a Center/Laboratory Director at NBS/ NIST. She may well have been the first woman ever so appointed, and for much of the 25 years since then, she had been the only woman. Her accomplishments in this role have been widely recognized: the Distinguished Presidential Rank Award, the highest award of the U.S. Civil Service, which is bestowed by the President of the United States; the Service to America Award of the Partnership for Public Service; two awards of the Gold Medal of the U.S. Department of Commerce, its highest recognition; election to Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Physical Society; the Washington Academy of Sciences; and a number of other awards of professional societies and community organizations.
During her career, Dr. Gebbie was a tireless champion for the advancement of women in science and professional life. One of her signature accomplishments in this arena was breaking the “male-only” barrier to membership in the Cosmos Club of Washington, D.C., long the premiere men’s social club of the nation’s scientific and political elite.
Her stature derived from the outstanding record of accomplishment of the organization she founded and led for a quarter-century. Under her guidance, NIST staff received four Nobel Prizes in Physics (1997, 2001, 2005, 2012) in each case for work they had done entirely within their course of official duties at NIST - an extraordinary accomplishment for a U.S. Government Laboratory. Scientific accomplishments under her management included the cold-atom scientific revolution; quantum information technology, quantitative standards for medical diagnosis and therapy, neutron imaging and interferometry, and, among many other, a timekeeping service that was incorporated, for example, in the Microsoft Windows operating system that answered over a billion requests per day.
Dr. Gebbie was universally admired and loved by her scientific colleagues and staff members at NIST. In 2015, a newly commissioned building on the NIST Boulder campus was named the Katharine Gebbie Physical Measurement Laboratory, an unprecedented recognition for Dr. Gebbie’s contributions to NIST.
Biography courtesy of the Maryland Commission for Women, 2017.
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