Fankuchen, Isidor

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Fankuchen, Isidor

(b. Brooklyn, New York, 19 July 1905; d. Brooklyn, 28 June 1964)


Fankuchen’s parents were of modest means; he had two brothers and certainly was not spoiled in his youth. Intelligent and hard-working, he put himself through school by running a radio repair shop. Having obtained the B.S. from Cooper Union in 1926, he entered Cornell University as Hecksher fellow in 1929, married Dina Dardik in 1931, and received the Ph.D. under C. C. Murdock in 1933. In England as a fellow of the Schweinburg Foundation, he worked under Sir Lawrence Bragg in Manchester (1934–1936), then under J. D. Bernal at the Crystallographic Laboratory in Cambridge (1936–1938) and Birkbeck College in London (1938–1939).

On his return to the United States, Fankuchen held a national research fellowship in protein chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1939–1941) and served briefly as associate director of the Anderson Institute for Biological Research in Red Wing, Minnesota (1941–1942). In 1942, the year Cambridge University awarded him his second Ph.D., he joined the faculty of the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, where he soon became head of the division of applied physics (1946) and where he remained until his death.

Fankuchen exerted a great influence on the teaching of crystallography and X-ray diffraction. By 1950 the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn had been turned into a teeming center for crystallographic research, as Fankuchen and H. F. Mark were joined by P. P. Ewald, Rudolf Brill, and David Harker. The monthly meetings of the “Point Group,” Fankuchen’s seminar, regularly attracted a number of crystallographers from outside the New York area. Fankuchen also organized intensive summer courses in X-ray diffraction, intended primarily for scientists in related disciplines, and thereby furthered the dissemination of crystallographic concepts in the scientific community. The Polycrystal Book Service, from which any crystallographic book can be purchased directly, is one of his creations.

From 1948 until his death, Fankuchen was the first American editor of Acta crystallographica; he fulfilled his editorial duties with unusual distinction, thanks to his keen critical sense and absolute scientific integrity. He belonged to many scientific societies; he was a charter member of both the American Society for X-Ray and Electron Diffraction and the Crystallographic Society of America; in 1950, when these two organizations merged to form the American Crystallographic Association, he became its first president. At the time of his death, he was chairman of the National Committee for Crystallography.

The mark of Fankuchen’s scientific production is its diversity. His interests ranged widely through physics, chemistry, biology, and even mineralogy and metallurgy. He applied X-ray diffraction to new problems and refined or developed the necessary techniques and apparatus, as, for example, his very ingenious condensing monochromator to provide the intense X-ray beam required by his work on tomato mosaic virus. Of the crystal structures that he and his co-workers determined, the most memorable (of which he published a description in 1938, with Bernal and D. P. Riley) is that of the tomato bushy-stunt virus, a living crystalline substance.

For three years Fankuchen was an active member of the Bernal group and contributed to their results in the field of macromolecular compounds. He shared in the determination of the molecular weight of a tobacco-seed globulin (with Dorothy Crowfoot [Hodgkin], 1938) and the taking of the striking 5-degree-oscillation X-ray pattern of a single crystal of wet chymotrypsin (set forth in a paper that also dealt with hemoglobin, with Bernal and M. Perutz, 1938). He collaborated in the 1940 monograph on steroids (with Bernal and Crowfoot), in which crystal data are listed for more than eighty sterol derivatives, and in a famous paper on plant virus preparations (with Bernal, 1941).

In a series of publications, with Mark and others (1943–1949), Fankuchen studied fibers—chrysolite, chain polymers, fibrous proteins, and so forth. For this delicate work he devised a microcamera, in which the bore of a thermometer provided the collimator for the desired microbeam. With M. Bergmann he adapted this microcamera to the study of long spacings (1949), while he simultaneously investigated small-angle scattering from metal films (with B. Carroll, 1948). From 1947 to 1953, with a large number of collaborators, he conducted many studies of bones and teeth, in which investigations the microcamera proved its worth. First with H. S. Kaufman (1949), then with B. Post and R. S. Schwartz (1951), he successfully used diffraction at low temperatures utilizing a clever technique to prevent ice formation.

Fankuchen had a warm and buoyant personality. His kindness and helpfulness were legendary. His boisterous friendliness and deeply human qualities endeared him to all. During his last three years— while he was ill with cancer and knew it—he took great suffering in stride, never permitting it to interfere with his work. The Fankuchen Memorial Lectures perpetuate his name.


I. Original Works. A complete bibliography of Fankuchen’s works may be found in J. D. H. Donnay, “Memorial of Isidor Fankuchen,” in American Mineralo gist, 50 (1965), 539–547.

II. Secondary Literature. On Fankuchen’s life and works see also J. D. Bernal, “Prof. Isadore Fankuchen,” in Nature, 203 (1964), 916–917; J. D. H. Donnay, “Isidor Fankuchen, 1905–1964,” in Bulletin de la Société française de minéralogie (et de cristallographie), 87 (1964), 299; P. P. Ewald, “I. Fankuchen,” in Acta crystallographica, 17 (1964), 1091–1093; and E. Ubell, “A Crystal Grows in Brooklyn,” in Norelco Reporter, 10 (1963), 3, 39.

J. D. H. Donnay