Born in Vienna in 1930, Karplus escaped with his mother and brother – his father was jailed and prevented from emigrating – to Switzerland in 1938, after the Anschluss, Nazi Germany’s occupation of Austria. In an article he published about his experience during the Holocaust, Karplus wrote “in the spring of 1937, they [former friends from Austria] suddenly refused to have anything to do with us and began taunting us by calling us ‘dirty Jew boys’ when we foolishly continued to try to interact with them.”
The Karplus family includes many accomplished intellectuals: Johann Pal Karplus, Martin’s grandfather, was a psychiatry professor at the University of Vienna, and his son, Martin’s father, was Heinrich Karplus, Israeli pathologist and founder of forensic medicine in Israel. Physicist Robert von Lieben, and Martin’s brother was an internationally renowned physicist and professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Karplus’ uncle by marriage was sociologist/philosopher/musicologist Theodor W. Adorno.
Karplus earned his bachelor’s degree from Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1950 and completed his PhD studies three years later at the California Institute of Technology, where he worked with Linus Pauling. He was a postdoctoral fellow at Oxford University in England and then taught at the University of Illinois and Columbia University before moving to teach at his alma mater.
Karplus’ research has enhanced multiple scientific sub-fields within physical chemistry including nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, molecular dynamics and quantum chemistry. He has significantly contributed to our understanding of nuclear spin-spin coupling and electron spin resonance spectroscopy. There is an equation named after him, the Karplus equation, that deals with the connection between coupling constants and dihedral angles within protein nuclear magnetic resonance. More recently, Karplus and his lab focus on determining molecules’ often complex biological properties.
He is a member of multiple respected scientific groups and has received the Christian B. Anfinsen Award for his outstanding achievement in protein science. Additionally, Karplus is a well-known teacher and many of his students have gone on to make their own notable strides in various fields of science. He is also affiliated with Université de Strasbourg in France.