Scientists » Chemists » RICHARD R. ERNST
Richard Robert Ernst is a Swiss chemist, researcher and teacher who won the prestigious Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1991, “for his contributions to the development of the methodology of high resolution nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy”. Born in the artistic yet industrious town of Winterthur, his childhood interest was music. However at the age of 13, he accidentally discovered his passion for chemistry and pursued it to college. After completing his PhD in physical chemistry from the Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich, he moved to Palo Alto, California as a research chemist. There, he teamed up with an American scientist Weston Anderson, and discovered the methodology to significantly increase the sensitivity of NMR techniques. After few years, he returned to his alma mater in Zürich as a professor and introduced the technique that enabled a high-resolution, ‘two-dimensional’ study of larger molecules than had previously been accessible to NMR. His significant contribution to the field of nuclear magnetic resonance has helped scientists study the interaction between biological molecules and other substances such as metal ions, water, and drugs. It has also laid the foundation for the development of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) in medical diagnostics. He is credited with several inventions and holds many patents.
Richard R. Ernst received his diploma in chemistry in 1957. After a short break for military service, in 1962, he received his Ph.D. degree in physical chemistry under Professor Hans H. Günthard from ETH Zürich.
For his doctoral thesis, he worked with fellow scientist, Hans Primas, on high resolution Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR), designing and building improved NMR spectrometers.
His post-doctoral year was spent as a researcher and teacher at ETH Zürich. After university, he decided to pursue an industrial job in the United States. In 1963, he joined as a research scientist at Varian Associates in Palo Alto, California.
This move became the turning point of his career. At Varian, he met other famous scientists who were working in the same field, albeit with clear commercial goals. The association with likeminded colleagues motivated him to continue his research.
He particularly associated with American scientist Weston A. Anderson, and by 1966 they significantly enhanced NMR spectra by replacing slow sweep radio frequencies with high intensity short pulses. As a result, spectra that were previously too weak for identification were now clearly discernible.
This discovery enabled the analysis of many more types of nuclei and smaller amounts of materials. During his final years at Varian (1966–68), they also developed numerous computer applications in spectroscopy for automated experiments and improved data processing.
In 1968, he returned to Zürich as a faculty member of ETH to guide a research group on NMR at the Laboratory of Physical Chemistry. He became a full professor in 1976.
During this period, he made a more refined contribution to the field of NMR spectroscopy: a technique that enabled a high-resolution, two-dimensional analysis of larger molecules than had previously been accessible to NMR. The technique replaced single pulses of radio frequencies with a sequence of pulses.
This technique enabled scientists to analyze the three-dimensional structures of organic and inorganic compounds, proteins and other large biological molecules, or macromolecules. Moreover, they were able to study interactions between biological molecules and other substances, identify chemical species and study the rate of chemical reactions.
His work further provided the foundation for the development of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) which became one of the most important diagnostic tools for medical professionals.
In 1991, he received the prestigious Nobel Prize in Chemistry. That same year, he was also honoured with the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize at Columbia University, sharing it with colleague Kurt Wüthrich.
He still continues his research at ETH Zurich.
In 1966, together with scientist Weston A. Anderson, he discovered that the sensitivity of NMR techniques (previously restricted to the analysis of only a few nuclei) could be significantly increased by replacing slow, sweeping radio waves with short, intense pulses. This discovery enabled the analysis of many more types of nuclei and smaller amounts of materials.
With his experimental demonstration of the ‘two-dimensional’ NMR technique, scientists were able to determine the 3D structure of organic and inorganic compounds and biological macromolecules such as proteins. They were also able to study the interaction between biological molecules and other substances such as water, drugs etc., identify chemical species and study the rate of chemical reactions.
Richard R. Ernst was born on 14 August 1933 in Winterthur, a suburb of Zürich, Switzerland, to Robert Ernst and Irma Brunner. He had two sisters. His father, Robert, was a teacher of architecture at the technical high school of Winterthur.
Winterthur was a unique blend of artistic and industrious activities which influenced both, Richard’s leisurely and professional interests. At an early age, he learned how to play the violoncello and got interested in musical composition.
At the age of 13, however, he discovered his interest in chemistry. In his family garret, he chanced upon a box filled with chemicals that belonged to his late uncle, who was a metallurgical engineer but interested in chemistry. Thereafter, he started experimenting with the chemicals and became increasingly curious about chemical reactions.
He furthered this interest by reading all available books on chemistry at his home and the city library. Before long, he realized that he wanted to be a chemist instead of a musical composer.
After high school, he enrolled at the famous Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich (ETH Zürich), eager to study his favourite subject. However, he was disappointed with the way Chemistry was being taught and often reverted to additional readings for enhanced knowledge.
Through books like ‘Textbook of Physical Chemistry’ by S. Glasstone, he learnt topics that were usually not covered in academic lectures - fundamentals of quantum mechanics, spectroscopy, statistical mechanics, and statistical thermodynamics.
Ernst married Magdalena Kielholz on 9 October 1963. The couple has three children; two daughters named Anna Magdalena and Katharina Elisabeth, and a son called Hans-Martin. All three of them are educators.
In his spare time, he still enjoys music and is a passionate musician. He also collects Asian art and is especially interested in Tibetan scroll paintings.
Ernst won the prestigious Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1991 “for his contributions to the development of the methodology of high resolution nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy”.
In 1991, he also won the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University together with his colleague, Kurt Wüthrich for research in developing NMR methods that could show both the behaviour and structure of complex biological molecules. He also received the Wolf Prize in Chemistry the same year.
He was awarded for Achievements in Magnetic Resonance EAS in 1992.
He is a member of many international institutions, including the International Society of Magnetic Resonance, the American Physical Society, the Royal Society of London, the Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher, and the science academies of India and Korea.
He is also on the editorial boards of several journals concerning magnetic resonance and holds several patents for his inventions.