Richard R. Ernst, a Swiss physical chemist, and Nobel Laureate, died on June 4. He was 87. Ernst won the Nobel Prize for inventing specific methods to analyze the chemical properties of atoms, which created the foundation of Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or MRI. He helped improve MRI sensitivity, which was first tested in the 1940s to create images of body organs. 

Born in the same city where he died, Winterthur, Ernst graduated from the federal technology institute ETH Zurich. He spent his entire career there, receiving numerous honors, including the Nobel Prize for Chemistry (1991), the Wolf Prize for Chemistry (1991), the Horwitz Prize (1991), and the Marcel Benoist Prize (1986).

In 1963, Ernst began working for Varian Associates as a scientist. During that time, he invented Fourier transform NMR, noise decoupling, and other approaches. In 1968, he returned to ETH Zurich as a lecturer, gradually working his way up to Assistant Professor in 1970, Associate Professor in 1972, and full Professor of Chemistry in 1976 and the years thereafter.

A research group dedicated to magnetic resonance spectroscopy was led by Ernst, director of the Physical Chemistry Laboratory at ETH Zurich. Two-dimensional NMR and several pulse techniques were developed by Ernst, along with magnetic resonance tomography and the NMR structure determination of biopolymers in solution. He also studied intra-molecular dynamics and retired in 1998.

Ernst was a member of the following:

  • Estonian Academy of Sciences
  • US National Academy of Sciences
  • Royal Academy of Sciences, London
  • German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina
  • Russian Academy of Sciences,
  • Korean Academy of Science and Technology
  • Bangladesh Academy of Sciences
  • Foreign Member of the Royal Society
  • World Knowledge Dialogue Scientific Board

Ernst’s awards included:

  • John Gamble Kirkwood Medal (1989)
  • Marcel Benoist Prize (1986)
  • Wolf Prize for Chemistry (1991)
  • Louisa Gross Horowitz Price of Columbia University (1991)
  • Tadeus Reichstein Medal (2000)
  • Order of the Star of Romania (2004)

Ernst had several honorary doctorates including those from:

  • Technical University of Munich
  • EPF Lausanne
  • University of Zurich
  • University Antwerpen
  • Babes-Bolyai University
  • University Montpelier

A 2009 film called Science Plus Dharma Equals Social Responsibility was produced by Carlo Burton and takes place in Ernst’s hometown.

Survivors include his wife, Magdalena Kielholz, and their children Anna Magdalena, Katharina Elisabeth, and Hans-Martin Walter.

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