Richard R. Ernst
Ernst in the 1980s
Richard Robert Ernst

(1933-08-14)14 August 1933
Winterthur, Switzerland
Died4 June 2021(2021-06-04) (aged 87)
Winterthur, Switzerland
Alma materETH Zurich (PhD)
Known for
Scientific career
ThesisKernresonanz-Spektroskopie mit stochastischen Hochfrequenzfeldern (1962)
Doctoral advisorsHans H. Günthard
Hans Primas
Doctoral studentsMarc Baldus

Richard Robert Ernst (14 August 1933 – 4 June 2021) was a Swiss physical chemist and Nobel laureate.[2]

Ernst was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1991 for his contributions towards the development of Fourier transform nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy[3] while at Varian Associates and ETH Zurich.[4][5][6][7][8] These underpin applications to both to chemistry with NMR spectroscopy and to medicine with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).[1]

He humbly referred to himself as a "tool-maker" rather than a scientist.[9]

Early life

Ernst was born in Winterthur, Switzerland on 14 August 1933[10] to Robert Ernst and Irma Ernst-Brunner.[11] He was the oldest of three children of Irma Brunner and Robert Ernst. He grew up in a house built in 1898 by his grandfather, who was a merchant.[12] During his childhood, he was interested in music, playing the violoncello and even considering a career as a musical composer. At 13-years old, Ernst stumbled upon a box of chemicals belonging to his late uncle, a metallurgical engineer.[13] Young Ernst was excited by what he found, and set about trying all conceivable reactions, some of which resulted in explosions that terrified his parents.[9]


He enrolled in the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zurich to study chemistry and received his diploma in 1957 as a “Diplomierter Ingenieur Chemiker''.[14] He was disappointed in the course content, so conducted further research and taught himself quantum mechanics and thermodynamics in his spare time.[9] After a break to complete his military service, Ernst earned his Ph.D. in physical chemistry in 1962[15] from ETH Zurich.[16] His dissertation was on nuclear magnetic resonance in the field of physical chemistry.[10]


Ernst entered Varian Associates as a scientist in 1963 and invented Fourier transform NMR, noise decoupling, and a number of other methods. He returned to ETH Zurich in 1968 and became a lecturer. His career developed to assistant professor in 1970 and associate professor in 1972. Since 1976, Richard R. Ernst was Full Professor of Physical Chemistry.[17]

Ernst led a research group dedicated to magnetic resonance spectroscopy, was the director of the Physical Chemistry Laboratory at the ETH Zurich. He developed two-dimensional NMR and several novel pulse techniques. He retired in 1998. He participated in the development of medical magnetic resonance tomography, as well as the NMR structure determination of biopolymers in solution collaborating with Professor Kurt Wüthrich. He also participated in the study of intra-molecular dynamics.[17]

Awards and honours

Richard R. Ernst, UNESCO 2011

Ernst was a foreign fellow of the Estonian Academy of Sciences (elected 2002),[18] the US National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Academy of Sciences, London, the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Korean Academy of Science and Technology and Bangladesh Academy of Sciences.[19][20][21] He was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society (ForMemRS) in 1993.[1] He was awarded the John Gamble Kirkwood Medal in 1989.[22]

In 1991, Ernst was on an aeroplane flying over the Atlantic when he discovered he had been awarded The Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He was invited into the cockpit, where he was given a radio to talk to the Nobel committee. Here they told him he was being honoured "for his contributions to the development of the methodology of high resolution nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy".[9][23]

Ernst was member of the World Knowledge Dialogue Scientific Board. He was awarded the Marcel Benoist Prize in 1986, the Wolf Prize for Chemistry in 1991,[24] and Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize of Columbia University in 1991.[20][25] He was also awarded the Tadeus Reichstein Medal in 2000[26] and the Order of the Star of Romania in 2004.[27] He also held Honorary Doctorates from the Technical University of Munich, EPF Lausanne, University of Zurich, University Antwerpen, Babes-Bolyai University, and University Montpellier.[20]

The 2009 Bel Air Film Festival featured the world premiere of a documentary film on Ernst Science Plus Dharma Equals Social Responsibility. Produced by Carlo Burton, the film takes place in Ernst's hometown in Switzerland.[28] In 2022, another movie about Richard R. Ernst premiered at the Cameo cinema in Winterthur, produced by Lukas Schwarzenbacher and Susanne Schmid. The documentary contains a retrospective of Richard R. Ernsts life, which is filmed only a few months before his death.[29]

Personal life

Ernst was married to Magdalena until his death.[30] Together, they had three children: Anna Magdalena, Katharina Elisabeth and Hans-Martin Walter.[10] Besides toiling with his work, Ernst also enjoyed music and art, specifically Tibetan scroll art. Using scientific techniques, Ernst would research the pigments on the scrolls to learn about their geographic origin and age.[11]

Ernst died on 4 June 2021 in Winterthur at the age of 87.[30][24]

Selected bibliography


  1. ^ a b c "Professor Richard Ernst ForMemRS". London: Royal Society. Archived from the original on 11 October 2015.
  2. ^ Alger, J R (1992). "The 1991 Nobel Prize in chemistry awarded to an MRI investigator". Journal of Computer Assisted Tomography. 16 (1): 1–2. doi:10.1097/00004728-199201000-00001. PMID 1729287.
  3. ^ Aue, W. P. (1976). "Two-dimensional spectroscopy. Application to nuclear magnetic resonance". The Journal of Chemical Physics. 64 (5): 2229–2246. Bibcode:1976JChPh..64.2229A. doi:10.1063/1.432450. ISSN 0021-9606. S2CID 10608225.
  4. ^ "Freeview video interview with Richard Ernst by the Vega Science Trust".
  5. ^ "Interview with Professor Richard R. Ernst by Joanna Rose, science writer, 8 December 2001".
  6. ^ "The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1991".
  7. ^ "Ernst Autobiography at".
  8. ^ Ernst, Richard, R. "Richard R. Ernst". Retrieved 18 July 2015.((cite web)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  9. ^ a b c d "Richard Ernst Obituary". The Times. 29 June 2021.
  10. ^ a b c "Richard R. Ernst – Biographical". Nobel Prize. Retrieved 8 June 2021.
  11. ^ a b Anthes, Emily (16 June 2021). "Richard R. Ernst Nobelist Who Paved Way for MRI Dies at 87". New York Times. Retrieved 18 June 2021.
  12. ^ "The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1991". Retrieved 10 June 2021.
  13. ^ "Insights from Notable Scientists", Scientific Research as a Career, CRC Press, pp. 95–114, 22 June 2011, doi:10.1201/b11013-11, ISBN 978-0-429-10525-8, retrieved 29 March 2021
  14. ^ [bare URL PDF]
  15. ^ Ernst, Richard R. (1962). Kernresonanz-Spektroskopie mit stochastischen Hochfrequenzfeldern (PhD thesis). Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich. doi:10.3929/ethz-a-000091764. hdl:20.500.11850/133369.
  16. ^ Prof. Dr. Richard R. Ernst, ETH Zurich Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences, (Retrieved 18 April 2016)
  17. ^ a b "Prof. Dr. Richard R. Ernst". Retrieved 23 April 2020.
  18. ^ "Estonian Academy of Sciences, Membership". Archived from the original on 3 March 2012. Retrieved 15 September 2017.
  19. ^ List of Fellows of Bangladesh Academy of Sciences Archived 15 April 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  20. ^ a b c "Richard R. Ernst". Retrieved 10 June 2021.
  21. ^ Rooney, Terrie M. (1998). Contemporary authors. V. 158. Peacock, Scot. Detroit: Gale. p. 114. ISBN 0-7876-1185-9. OCLC 37926306.
  22. ^ "Kirkwood Award". ACS New Haven. Retrieved 17 January 2020.
  23. ^ "The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1991". Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 10 November 2015. <>
  24. ^ a b "Richard Ernst, father of the MRI, dies aged 87". Swissinfo. 8 June 2021. Retrieved 8 June 2021.
  25. ^ "The Official Site of Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize". 11 November 2022.
  26. ^ "Reichstein Medal | Swiss Academy of Pharmaceutical Sciences SAPhS". Retrieved 2 April 2017.
  27. ^ "DECRET 18 16/01/2004 – Portal Legislativ".
  28. ^ "Film Festival Ticker". Archived from the original on 11 November 2009.
  29. ^ "Lebensbilanz von Nobelpreisträger auf Film festgehalten". 84XO (in German). Retrieved 5 June 2022.
  30. ^ a b "Nobel-winning MRI pioneer Richard Ernst dies". The Straits Times. Singapore. Agence France-Presse. 8 June 2021. Retrieved 8 June 2021.
  31. ^ Ernst, Richard R. (1987). Principles of nuclear magnetic resonance in one and two dimensions. Bodenhausen, Geoffrey., Wokaun, Alexander. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-855629-2. OCLC 12804280.