Professor Barry L. Karger: Scientist, Mentor, and Innovator

Jun 30, 2014

Professor Barry L. Karger, one of the earliest contributors of modern high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and bioanalytical separations and analysis, recently celebrated his 50th year as professor of chemistry at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, and his 40th year as Director of the Barnett Institute of Chemical and Biological Analysis. His years as a teacher and mentor to scores of students, many of whom hold key positions in industry and academia, as well as his accomplishments in the scientific arena, are reviewed by Howard Barth, his former student.

Figure 1: Professor Barry Karger surrounded by high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) systems at the Barnett Institute.
In 2013 Professor Barry L. Karger celebrated his 50th anniversary as professor of chemistry at Northeastern University (NU), and his 40th year as Director of the Barnett Institute of Chemical and Biological Analysis (Figure 1). Karger has influenced the lives of hundreds of PhD graduate students, postdoctoral fellows at NU, and staff scientists at the Barnett Institute. He was responsible for developing two generations of analytical chemists, as well as training many students in cutting-edge separation science and bioanalytical chemistry. His research programs have attracted many high-level and prominent scientists who have spent their sabbaticals in his laboratories, advancing analytical sciences. At 74 years of age, Karger is still actively writing, lecturing, and promoting the study of bioanalysis.

It was also 50 years ago when our paths first crossed. I was a high school senior in Boston, Massachusetts, and Karger was a newly appointed assistant professor at NU. I had just placed first in the regional and state high school science fairs for analyzing trace metals in seawater (Boston Harbor), using a recently introduced chelating resin for removal and concentrating metal ions and a homemade polarograph for detection, which forever fueled my interest in analytical chemistry. My enthusiasm knew no bounds, and after a few phone calls, I reached Karger at NU and asked if he would take me on as a summer student in his laboratory. Although he was just setting up his programs, he invited me to visit when I enrolled at NU in 1964. That was when our first interaction began, which continued throughout most of my time as an undergraduate, and for many years after I earned my PhD from Karger. It was through him that I obtained my first job in industry as a chromatographer.

In recognition of Karger's scientific accomplishments, and the impact that he has had on the development of such a large number of analytical chemists, this biography is dedicated. (Because it is not practical to list all of Karger's patents and publications, only a select few are referenced to give the readers a flavor of his output.)

Early Years as an MIT Undergraduate

Karger's first exposure to separation science was during his undergraduate years as a chemistry major at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At the time, MIT had an active analytical chemistry department, headed by Professor L.B. "Buck" Rogers, one of the "fathers" of analytical chemistry. For his senior research project, Karger was introduced to foam fractionation by Rogers. This method is an offshoot of ore flotation, a mining operation in which solutes of interest are selectively adsorbed onto surface-active bubbles forming solute-enriched foam that is continuously collected and processed. Nowadays, bubble adsorptive methods have been replaced with modern separation techniques.

Karger published his first paper in 1961 on the foam fractionation studies he had performed for his senior research project with Rogers at MIT (1). This initial exposure to separation science decided his fate. He was not only attracted to the experimental and theoretical aspects of the separation process, but also to physicochemical measurements that could be made with chromatographic techniques.

Graduate school was next. Most universities at the time had analytical programs in electroanalytical chemistry, spectroscopy, or wet-chemical methods. Rogers, however, strongly suggested that Karger focus on research in chromatography, particularly gas chromatography (GC), an emerging technology that offered many opportunities regarding theory and applications.