Richard R. Ernst 1933–2021

ISMAR mourns the passing of Richard R. Ernst (August 14,1933 – June 4, 2021), who is a founder of modern magnetic resonance spectroscopy. During his active career from the 1960s to 1990s, Richard Ernst made seminal contributions to the development and applications of nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), propelling these techniques into the mainstream of chemistry, biology, and medicine. His contributions were recognized with the 1991 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

When Richard Ernst started as a graduate student at the Laboratorium für Physikalische Chemie at ETH Zürich in Switzerland, NMR was a promising but still obscure technique. As a postdoc at Varian Associates in Palo Alto, California, he developed in 1965 together with Wes Anderson Fourier transform NMR, which dramatically improved sensitivity over the existing continuous-wave method. After he returned to ETH as a faculty member, he got inspired by a proposal by Jean Jeener to extend NMR to two independent frequency dimensions, which he and his group experimentally demonstrated in 1974 and which triggered a flurry of developments by Richard Ernst’s lab and many others that revolutionized the information that could be gained about molecular systems and materials. Around the same time, Richard Ernst with his coworkers also demonstrated how the concept could be extended to imaging laying the foundation of modern MRI. In another major development, two-dimensional NMR was expanded and used to study the detailed structure of proteins in solution in a highly successful collaboration with Kurt Wüthrich. Later in his career, in his lifelong position as a professor at ETH, Richard Ernst focused on the development of NMR methods and their applications to biomolecular dynamics, also in combination with computer simulations, and to solid-state NMR. All these advances have made NMR an indispensable tool in chemistry and biochemistry to this day. Richard Ernst also maintained a long-term collaboration with Arthur Schweiger on new methods developments in electron spin resonance (ESR).

As a scientist, Richard Ernst left an indelible imprint on chemistry far beyond NMR. He was also a gifted teacher and communicator with an unparalleled ability to explain abstract concepts in simple pictures to generations of undergraduate and graduate students as well as in public lectures to broad audiences with diverse backgrounds.

Richard Ernst led his research group by example with much passion and dedication. The high standard he expected from his coworkers he applied at an even higher level to himself. He entrusted his coworkers with much intellectual freedom, which he deemed essential for creative research. His drive for research was founded to a significant part on a deep responsibility he felt toward ETH, his home country, Switzerland, and global society. At the same time, he immensely enjoyed developing clever, new NMR methods that allowed deeper scientific insights.

Despite all his success, Richard Ernst remained modest and humble. He had an ability to touch people’s life. At memorial sessions organized in his honor in the wake of his death, almost everybody who had the privilege to personally meet him could share an unforgettable special moment.

Besides the Nobel Prize, Richard Ernst received many honors and awards, which include the Marcel Benoist Prize (1986), the Ampere Prize (1990), the Wolf Prize in Chemistry (1991), and the Horwitz Prize in Biology and Biochemistry (1991). He was also an elected member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Academy of Sciences, the Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina, der Russian Academy of Sciences, and the Korean Academy of Science and Technology.

In the late 1960s, at the end of his postdoc and before returning to Switzerland to start in a junior faculty position at ETH, Richard Ernst traveled with his wife Magdalena to Nepal and became enthralled by Tibetan art, religion, and culture for the rest of his life. Over time, he acquired an extensive collection of precious Tibetan thangkas (scroll paintings), which were displayed at this home in Winterthur and, after retirement, Richard Ernst analyzed centuries-old thangkas with his characteristic scientific rigor for paint pigments to delineate their provenience using Raman spectroscopy. Richard Ernst described himself as non-religious. Through his appreciation for Buddhism he became closely acquainted with the 14th Dalai Lama.

Despite having served as an officer in the Swiss Military, Richard Ernst had a pacifistic worldview, which he expressed also during some public appearances. At the ENC conference in Savannah, Georgia, in Spring 2003 he denounced in graphic terms the U.S. invasion of Iraq that had begun only days earlier -- to the audible displeasure of members in the audience.

With Richard Ernst’s death the NMR community did not only lose one of its pioneers, but also an outstanding human being. He was a role model who represented for many of us what can be called the scientific conscience of our community.

An online video of an interview with Richard Ernst about his life and work (conducted by Sir Harry Kroto) is available here.

A memorial session for Richard Ernst was held at the ISMAR-APNMR meeting in Japan on August 22, 2021 with a number of former colleagues and friends sharing their memories and thoughts. The video recording of this session is available here.

Rafael Brüschweiler          October 24, 2021