ABOVE: Richard Ernst, circa 1990

Richard Ernst, a chemist whose Nobel Prize–winning work brought practical applications to nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, died June 4 at the age of 87 in his hometown in Switzerland, ETH Zurich announced. Ernst’s work refining NMR technology set the stage for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which has been a mainstay of medical diagnostics for more than 30 years.

Born on August 14, 1933, in Winterthur, Switzerland, Ernst was raised with his two sisters by his mother and his father, who taught architecture at a trade school. He was an accomplished cello player with an eye on composing music, but as a teenager, he stumbled across a case of chemicals owned by his late uncle who worked as a metallurgical engineer, according to his Nobel autobiography.

“I became almost immediately fascinated by the possibilities of trying out all conceivable reactions with them, some leading to explosions, others to unbearable poisoning of the air in our house, frightening my parents,” Ernst wrote in his autobiography. “However, I survived and started to read all chemistry books that I could get a hand on.”

He entered college at ETH Zurich eager to study chemistry, but quickly was disenchanted with the rote memorization involved. After graduating in 1957, Ernst entered into military service for a few years. He returned to ETH Zurich to complete his PhD in physical chemistry, which he received in 1962, while focusing on NMR technology. 

Richard Ernst next to an NMR spectrometer, circa 1980

NMR spectroscopy identifies the chemical composition of certain molecules through the use of a powerful magnetic field. The nuclei of some atoms can absorb radio frequencies based on their spin, creating a signature resonance wave, like a tuning fork. The different frequencies of a given sample are then plotted on a graph, with the most common nuclei present having the highest peaks, allowing scientists to see what is in the sample.

When Ernst began his work, magnetic fields were not uniform across the interiors of NMR machines, which would alter the results depending on where the sample was located. In 1963, Ernst moved to Palo Alto, California, to work for Varian Associates, where he continued working to overcome the shortcomings of NMR by amplifying radio signals to boost sensitivity while decreasing the noise in the signal that complicated the readings. The advent of electromagnets made for a more uniform and reliable magnetic field.

He returned to ETH Zurich in 1968 to teach and would remain there for the duration of his career. He continued his work with NMR, creating different magnetic pulse techniques as well as the two-dimensional NMR spectrum that could plot frequency on two axes, allowing researchers to pick up on the chemical shift, or the changes in the spin of a nucleus brought about by proximity to certain other atoms.

His work would lay the foundation for MRI technology developed through the 1970s. Like NMR, MRI also uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to identify the frequencies of atoms within the body. Rather than creating a graph, MRI identifies abundances of hydrogen, which is readily found in fat and water, to create an inner map of the human body that can indicate the presence of cancers and brain injuries. Ernst was the sole recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1991. 

Ernst was the subject of the 2009 documentary Science + Dharma = Social Responsibility, which explores his passion for useful applications of research and gives insight into who he was as a person, including a look at his Tibetan art collection. He had gained an appreciation for Tibetan art and Buddhism while traveling in Asia, ETH Zurich says.

His Nobel autobiography is chock full of names of coworkers and mentors he had throughout the years, crediting them for all of the ways they helped his work to develop and shine. Last but not least, he had a special message for his wife.

“I am extremely grateful for the encouragement and for the occasional readjustment of my standards of value by my wife Magdalena who stayed with me so far for more than 28 years despite all the problems of being married to a selfish work-addict with an unpredictable temper,” Ernst’s 1991 autobiography continues, crediting her with raising their three children, two of whom became elementary school teachers. “I am not surprised that they show no intention to follow in my footsteps, although if I had a second chance myself, I would certainly try to repeat my present career.”

Ernst is survived by Magdalena and their three children: Anna Magdalena, Katharina Elisabeth, and Hans-Martin Walter.