Aug 21Featured ArticleIssue

A tribute to Nobel laureate Richard Ernst

Swiss physical chemist Richard Ernst who was known for his contribution to the development of high resolution
nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), recently died at the age of 87. Ernst received the 1991 chemistry Nobel
prize for his work in NMR.

Born in Winterthur, Switzerland on August 14, 1933, Ernst earned his PhD in physical chemistry in 1962 from ETH Zurich and completed his dissertation was on nuclear magnetic resonance in the field of physical chemistry.
He worked as a research chemist for Varian Associates in California, US, one of Silicon Valley’s first high-tech
companies. Ernst joined ETH Zurich in 1970 as an assistant chemistry professor. There he met famous
scientists, like Weston A Anderson, Ray Freeman, Jim Hyde, Martin Packard, and Harry Weaver.


Still in Varian, one of major importance for the success of more advanced experiments and measurement
techniques in NMR was the availability of small laboratory computers that could be hooked up directly to the
spectrometer. During his last years at Varian (1966-68), Ernst developed numerous computer applications
in spectroscopy for automated experiments and improved data processing (Source: www.nobelprize.

Back in Switzerland, Ernst had a chance to take over the lead of the NMR research group at the Laboratorium
für Physikalische Chemie of ETH-Z. Despite an initial lack of suitable instrumentation, he continued to work
on methodological improvements of time-domain NMR with repetitive pulse experiments and Fourier double
resonance. In addition, he along with other scientists performed the first pulsed time-domain chemically-induced
dynamic nuclear polarisation (CIDNP) experiments.

Ernst also developed stochastic resonance as an alternative to pulse FT spectroscopy employing binary pseudorandom noise sequences for broadband excitation, correlating input and output noise.In 1968 Ernst returned to Switzerland after an extensive trip through Asia. A brief visit to Nepal made him turn
toward Asian art, especially towards Tibetan scroll paintings, the so-called thangkas, a unique and most exciting
form of religious art. He invested a large part of the prize money into his Tibetan art collection.

Ernst retired in 1998 after having been associated at ETH Zurich for nearly three decades and a full professor for more than 20 years. He headed a research group at the university and focussed on magnetic resonance spectroscopy and served at one point as director of the physical chemistry lab. ETH Zurich even named a lecture series after him in 2009.

According to, Ernst mentioned, “A book from which I learned a lot at that time was
Theoretical Chemistry by S Glasstone. It revealed to me the fundamentals of quantum mechanics, spectroscopy,
statistical mechanics, and statistical thermodynamics, subjects that were never even mentioned in lectures, except in a voluntary and excellent lecture course given by the young enthusiastic Professor Hans H Günthard
who had studied chemistry and physics in parallel.”

Ernst also served as the President of ETH Zurich’s Research Council, as a member of the Swiss Science Council and also sat on the editorial boards of 10 scientific journals. He also belonged to the US National Academy of Sciences, the UK’s Royal Society, the German National Academy of Natural Sciences Leopoldina, the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Korean Academy of Science and Technology.

Post his retirement from ETH Zurich, Ernst delivered lectures on magnetic resonance spectroscopy, the historical development of spectroscopy and the analysis of pigments in paintings using Raman spectroscopy.

Ernst apart from receiving the Nobel Prize was awarded seven honorary doctorates. He also received the Wolf Prize in Chemistry in 1991 for ‘revolutionary contributions to NMR spectroscopy, especially Fouriertransform and two-dimensional NMR’. Besides this, he received the Horwitz Prize (1991), and the Marcel Benoist Prize (1986). He received more than a dozen honorary doctors degrees, among them degrees from ETH Lausanne, Technische Universität Munich, Universität Zurich, University Bern, University Antwerpen, Babes-Bolyai University Cluj-Napoca, Charles University Prague, and University Montpellier. He is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, of the Royal Academy of Sciences, London, of the Deutsche Akademie Leopoldina, of the Russian Academy of Sciences, of the Korean Academy of Science and Technology, and an honorary member of many further societies.

Ernst is survived by his wife and three Richard Ernst ch ildren, the Swiss news agency ATS.

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