Pasadena Community Foundation Funds

Josephine de Karman Trust Fellowship Endowment

Josephine de Karman and her brother, Theodore von Karman, a world-renowned scientist.

The Josephine de Karman Trust Fellowship Endowment was created by the Josephine de Karman Trust to provide fellowships to help graduate students complete their PhD dissertations.

The Josephine de Karman Fellowship Trust was established in 1954 by the late Dr. Theodore von Karman* in memory of his sister, Josephine, who died in 1951 in Pasadena. After decades of supporting students with sizable fellowship awards, the Trust reached a crossroads in recent years. The trustees approached the Pasadena Community Foundation in 2022 about distributing the assets of $3.45 to an endowment at PCF. In late 2023, the transition was complete: PCF became the steward of the de Karman legacy and will oversee the fellowship awards in partnership with a selection committee of qualified PhD application reviewers.

Theodore and Pipö — Soulmates in Work and Life

a black and white vintage photo shows a woman in a black dress suit and ruffled white shirt leaning against a car and smiling at the camera.
Josephine de Karman in an undated photo, courtesy of Caltech Archives.

Theodore von Karman was born in Budapest in 1881. He was one of five children, and Josephine was his only sister. Theodore was a mathematics prodigy as a child but later turned to engineering. He moved to Germany early in his career to further his studies and eventually moved into researching and teaching aeronautics at two German universities.

Von Karman is considered one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century. He was responsible for crucial advances in aerodynamics, characterizing supersonic and hypersonic airflow. While his list of achievements and awards spans pages, he is best known as a world-renowned aeronautics theoretician, the first director of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology (GALCIT), and one of the founders and the first director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

Josephine and Theodore had an exceptionally close relationship throughout their lives. Theodore called her Pipö, and with her mastery of several languages and her extroverted personality, she served as his manager and social hostess. Theodore came to Caltech as an invited lecturer in 1926, and four years later, Caltech invited Theodore to assume the direction GALCIT. Josephine (and their mother) moved with him from the Netherlands to establish their home on South Marengo Avenue in Pasadena. There, she oversaw lively salons with leading scientific, Hollywood, and spiritualist figures. Josephine loved art and art history; she lectured in this area at USC between 1937 and 1941.

Josephine died suddenly of a heart attack in 1951, and Theodore was bereft. In her honor, he created the Josephine de Karman Fellowship Trust in 1954, which recognized and assisted students in any field whose scholastic achievements reflected Professor Von Kármán’s high standards. For many decades, the Fellowship supported both undergraduate and graduate students nationally and internationally.

President John F. Kennedy is shown in an historical photograph presenting  Theodore von Karman, at the age of 81, withthe National Medal of Science, the highest honor bestowed upon American
scientists and engineers. Kennedy is handing over the award to von Karman, surrounded by several men in suits. Everyone is smiling broadly
In 1963, President Kennedy presented von Karman, at the age of 81, with the National Medal of Science, the highest honor bestowed upon American scientists and engineers. Photo courtesy of the Caltech Archives; Vincent A. Finnigan, Planned Photography.

A new Direction for the trust

By the early 21st century, the Fellowship committee became overwhelmed by the number of applications: Students adept at Internet searches had discovered this generous opportunity, and the four-member selection committee began fielding more than 400 applications each year – an untenable task. Moreover, laws had become far more stringent for foundations and the committee was spending increasingly more in investment, legal, and trust fees  – a situation that left less funding for scholarships. It was time for a change.  George Abdo, a de Karman Trustee, notes that “We wanted to find a place where we could nest the fellowship permanently, decrease the administrative costs, and leave more funds to honor de Kármán’s charitable intentions. We also appreciate that PCF is in Pasadena, which is where de Karman made most of his mark on the scientific world.”  PCF is honored to steward the fund and support PhD students at eligible California universities for years to come.

* Born Theodore de Kármán, he changed his last name from “de” to “von” when he taught for many years at the University of Aachen in Germany.

application guidelines.

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