Washington University School of Medicine-St. Louis
Becker Medical Library
Women in Medicine at Washington University School of Medicine

Irene E. Karl
Irene E. Karl

Irene E. Karl was born in 1915, in Milwaukee Wisconsin. She attended the University of Wisconsin, graduating summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in 1937. In a class of 400, she was the only woman. Karl subsequently received a a master’s degree in 1938 and a doctorate in biochemistry in 1940 from the same institution.

For more than 50 years, Karl’s research focused on metabolic disorders such as diabetes and sepsis. Her novel observations into the pathogenesis of sepsis were termed “groundbreaking” by leading experts in the field. Her work directly led to new approaches and treatments of sepsis.

Karl worked as a biochemist from 1940-43 at Jewish Hospital in St. Louis before taking a hiatus to raise her family. She resumed her career in 1959 as a research associate at Washington University School of Medicine. From 1963-1970, she held the position of instructor first in the Department of Preventative Medicine and Public Health and then in the Department of Internal Medicine. From there she advanced through the academic ranks to become Research Professor of Medicine in 1981. Irene Karl was active in research until her death in 2006. She was the recipient of many awards including the School of Medicine Second Century Award, and was the first female scientist to receive the Jewish Federation of Business and Professional 2002 Woman of Valor Award.


Noted for her “indomitable spirit and intense curiosity,” for more than 70 years Irene Karl pursued her love and excitement for science. Despite being told early on to quit her training and get married because “women don’t make good scientists,” she overcame societal obstacles, discriminatory practices and the rampant marginalization plaguing women’s advancement to forge a highly successful career in medical research.

A multi-tasker before the word was coined. Karl balanced her spouse’s busy schedule, raised two professional daughters, and still served as a teacher, investigator, and role model to countless trainees all the while managing to serve wonderful luncheons, grow beautiful flowers and be impeccably dressed. In recognition of the Karl’s substantive contributions to medicine, the Irene E. and Michael M. Karl Professorship in Endocrinology and Metabolism and the Michael & Karl Lecture, Masters in Medicine series were established by gifts from their patients and friends. The Karl’s were the first husband and wife team to have an endowed professorship in their honor.