Richard R. Ernst was dozing on an October 1991 flight from Moscow to Washington, DC when the captain appeared at his seat. “Wake up,” the captain told him. “You’ve just won a prize.”
“What prize?” Ernst asked, annoyed at being disturbed.
“The Nobel Prize,” the captain answered. Remembering those moments in a 2010 interview, Ernst recalls: “Then, I exploded.”
He was the sole recipient of the 1991 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work advancing the field of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy. Ernst died June 4 at 87.
NMR spectroscopy uses radio signals to probe the chemical environment of atomic nuclei, information that can be used to elucidate the structure of a molecule. It is the basis for a suite of analytical techniques used to investigate molecules small and large, and for the medical imaging tool magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI.
Ernst’s first major contribution, at Varian Associates in the 1960s, was helping to invent Fourier transform NMR spectroscopy (FT-NMR), which revolutionized NMR by increasing instruments’ sensitivity by an order of magnitude or more. FT-NMR also enabled new kinds of NMR spectroscopy, like distinguishing isotopes such as carbon-13. In 1968, he re-joined the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), Zurich—where he did his university and graduate work—as a professor. In the 1970s, Ernst and colleagues developed 2D-NMR spectroscopy, allowing scientists to assign structures to larger and more complex molecules. Ernst continued developing NMR spectroscopy techniques both in solutions and solid-state materials until he retired in 1998.
“He did as much as anyone to turn NMR into the widely used technique it is today,” says Robert Tycko of the US National Institutes of Health, who is president of the International Society of Magnetic Resonance.
Early on, Ernst didn’t anticipate the impact 2D-NMR would have, says Rafael Brüschweiler of the Ohio State University, who was first his student and then a longtime collaborator at ETH Zurich. Even without an apparent application for the new idea, Ernst nevertheless felt his privilege as a professor made it his responsibility to explore its possibilities, Brüschweiler says. "Ernst combined personal humility with professional ambition," he says.
Speaking to the breadth of Ernst’s interests and abilities, Beat H. Meier, who now leads the solid-state NMR group at ETH Zurich that Ernst started, says, “He was one of the last giants who did everything.” Meier was Ernst’s graduate student in the 1970s and 80s. At that time, Meier says, “He was just a normal colleague. He trusted us, gave us credit. Gave us freedom.”
Colleagues and former students remember him as intensely intelligent, hard-working, creative, and generous. He was known to sit in the front row at lectures and take detailed notes, even when the speaker was only a year or two into their PhD work. Nikolai Skrynnikov of St. Petersburg University and Purdue University, who studied with Ernst as a postdoctoral researcher, recalls Ernst once writing a letter of recommendation for a US Permanent Resident Card for a scientist Ernst had never met, something he reportedly did regularly.
Ernst was also open about the difficulties of an academic career. He spoke and wrote about what he called a nervous breakdown in the early years of his ETH Zurich professorship that forced him out of work for several months.
In parallel with his spectroscopic interests, Ernst built and studied an extensive collection of antique Tibetan paintings. As a child in Winterthur, Switzerland, Ernst had transformed a disused photograph development lab in his parents’ basement into a makeshift laboratory where he nurtured his interest in chemistry. In his retirement, he installed a Raman spectroscopy instrument in his bedroom so he could work out the composition of pigments used by the artists in Tibet centuries before. He published his findings in scientific journals regularly in recent decades.
Ernst also wrote and spoke frequently about scientists’ social responsibilities, encouraging his colleagues to integrate “societal concerns and questions of global relevance in their courses and daily discussions,” as he put it in one essay (Angew. Chemie 2003, DOI: 10.1002/anie.200330065). Tycko says, “Once he won the Nobel, he tried to use that attention to express his ideas about how to make the world a better place.”
This story was updated on June 10, 2021, to add comments by Rafael Brüschweiler, information about Ernst’s openness about the difficulties of an academic career, and the additional affiliation of St. Petersburg University for Nikolai Skrynnikov. Also, the credit for the historical photo was changed from "Unknown" to "Courtesy of ETH Zurich" to clarify that although the university lists the source of the photo as unknown, ETH Zurich provided the photo to C&EN.