David and Clara Shoemaker

David and Clara Shoemaker working in an x-ray laboratory at Oregon State University, 1983.

Husband and wife crystallographers David and Clara Shoemaker were, in many respects, an unlikely couple.

David Shoemaker was born on May 12, 1920 in the tiny town of Kooskia, Idaho. Clara Brink was born on June 20, 1921 in Rolde, Holland. Both moved through their primary studies in orderly fashion and progressed to undergraduate work in chemistry – David at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, Clara at the University of Leiden.

In 1942 David received his bachelor’s degree from Reed and moved directly to the California Institute of Technology. Working under Linus Pauling, David quickly established himself as a promising doctoral candidate. His research was initially divided between Pauling’s expansive program of scientific war work and, later, a series of crystallographic investigations. While in Pasadena, David determined the structure of sixteen molecules, most notable among them threonine, an amino acid.

Upon receiving his Ph. D. in 1947, David – with the assistance of Pauling – was subsequently named a Guggenheim fellow, studying at both Oxford and the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen. Aged 27, he was among the youngest of his era to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Group photo of participants at the Conference on Current Problems of Physics. Copenhagen, Denmark. September 1947. Niels Bohr sits in the front row, far left. David Shoemaker is seated in the second row, fourth from right.

Group photo of participants at the Conference on Current Problems of Physics. Copenhagen, Denmark. September 1947. Niels Bohr sits in the front row, far left. David Shoemaker is seated in the second row, fourth from right.

Clara’s path through graduate studies was somewhat less smooth. She completed her undergraduate work at the University of Leiden in 1941, shortly before the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands and the subsequent closing of the university. Despite the turbulence of World War II, Clara was able to commence her graduate studies through the University of Utrecht, though much of her coursework was self-taught, conducted in her parents’ home. Despite these handicaps, Clara completed her doctoral examinations on time, in 1946, after which point she assumed an assistantship at the University of Utrecht and learned the techniques of x-ray crystallography, commuting one day per week to Amsterdam to study under the renowned crystallographer Caroline MacGillavry.

The years immediately following the close of hostilities were fruitful ones for both David and Clara. Having returned home from his Guggenheim trip, David was named a Senior Research Fellow at Caltech, where he solved the difficult structure of DL-serine and began the research program that came to define much of his (and Clara’s) career – a broad series of investigations into the structures of complex transition-metal phases. In the meantime, Clara became a full-time crystallographer, first studying crystal structures of monovalent ions at the University of Leiden and later working for one year at Oxford, where she conducted research on the crystal structure of vitamin B12 under Dorothy Hodgkin, the 1964 Nobel laureate in Chemistry.

In 1951 David was hired away from Caltech by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he began investigating zeolite structures as an Assistant Professor. Two years later, dissatisfied with the working environment at the University of Leiden, Clara took a one-year leave of absence to work on transition metals at M.I.T. Her laboratory in Cambridge was run by David Shoemaker.

In 1954 David renewed Clara’s leave of absence for an additional year and by 1955 it was clear that Clara would not be returning to Europe – on August 5th, the couple was married. Shortly thereafter Clara transferred to Harvard Medical School to work under the biochemist Barbara W. Low. One year later, Clara gave birth to the couple’s only son. While caring for the newborn Robert, Clara worked from home on the International Tables of Crystallography.

The Shoemakers enjoyed a productive tenure at M. I. T. – David was promoted to full professor, began a lengthy service on the U. S. National Committee for Crystallography (including a three-year term as President) and published widely, including a textbook titled Experiments in Physical Chemistry, which would eventually run through six editions.

In 1970 David was elected President of the American Crystallography Association. That same year, the Shoemakers relocated to Oregon State University, where David had been hired to chair the Department of Chemistry. In reaction to the university’s nepotism guidelines, Clara arranged to work as Research Associate under Dr. Ken Hedberg – like David Shoemaker, a former graduate student of Linus Pauling. The arrangement lasted for several years until the university’s rules were relaxed.

Model of the crystal structure and superstructure of the K Phase, Mn77Fe4Si19. Model built by Clara B. Shoemaker, David P. Shoemaker and Ted E. Hopkins.

During his tenure as department chair, David oversaw two major building projects – the construction of a new chemistry laboratory facility and the renovation of the chemistry offices and research building. Over that same period of time, Clara trained several graduate students in techniques of x-ray crystallography, publishing papers with many of her protégés. The couple retired in 1984, though they continued to conduct important work on transition metal phases as well as the controversial topic of quasicrystals.

The Shoemakers remained close friends with Linus Pauling, though they did dispute certain of Pauling’s claims about the nature of quasicrystals. In 1995 David Shoemaker, himself in fading health, spoke of his long association with Pauling at a memorial conference organized at Oregon State University. David’s comments detailing his recollection of the discovery of the alpha-helix caused something of a stir in the audience, as the provenance of the alpha-helix work has long been a matter of some dispute.

David Shoemaker on the Discovery of the Alpha Helix

Afterward, Shoemaker offered this clarification:

My memory may have been faulty in claiming to have seen Pauling actually taping his cardboard amide linkages together to form a helix, but Professor William Lipscomb, in a talk that preceded mine, showed a drawing in Pauling’s own hand of an alpha-helix rolled out flat, showing what points the polypeptide chain joined together in the helix. The drawing was titled ‘alpha helix. First drawn March 1948. Linus Pauling.’ My visit to Oxford was from January to March 1948.

David Shoemaker died of kidney failure on August 24, 1995, some six months after the Pauling memorial conference. His wife Clara, a close friend of our department, passed away on September 30, 2009. Over the course of their professional association, David and Clara published thirty-six scientific papers together.

The David and Clara Shoemaker Papers are just one of the many collections held in the OSU Libraries Special Collections.

One Response

  1. […] 1977.  During her time at Oxford, Dorothy supervised the work of many students, including a young Clara Brink, whose papers now reside in the Oregon State University Libraries Special […]

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