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Swiss scientist refined technology used in MRI scans

Written by B2BChief


His language skills finally developed, and he showed promise playing the cello. Then, around age 13, he made a discovery in the family’s attic: A box of chemicals left by a late uncle. He began doing experiments and reading anything he could find about chemistry, an obsession that led to a career.

Dr. Ernst won the 1991 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his contributions in nuclear magnetic resonance, the technology best known today for its use by doctors in MRI scanners, allowing detailed views of the body’s interior. The technology also has applications in analyzing complicated molecules and the ways in which they interact with one another. It provides tools to develop drugs and vaccines or determine the molecular makeup of foods and other items. It can even be used to determine the origins of the olives used to make a particular batch of olive oil.

Dr. Ernst, who died June 4 at the age of 87, built on earlier work by scientists including Isidor Isaac Rabi, Felix Bloch and Edward Mills Purcell. The technology involves manipulating subatomic particles by exposing them to magnetic fields and radio waves. The particles’ movements in response to these stimuli produce radio waves that can be analyzed to reveal the structures of molecules and their motions.

In the late 1950s, when Dr. Ernst was introduced to early magnetic-resonance devices, they were too slow to be of much practical use. With an American colleague, Weston Anderson, in the 1960s he found that the use of short, intense radio pulses could provide much more detailed information about molecules. Dr. Ernst also applied a mathematical method, known as a Fourier transform, for rapid analysis of the subatomic wobbles set off by those pulses.

These findings led to much faster devices. He later expanded the method along a second dimension, enabling the analysis of larger molecules and paving the way for modern MRI.

The advances were “like turning propeller planes into jetliners,” said Rafael Brüschweiler, an Ohio State University professor who worked with Dr. Ernst in the 1980s and 1990s.

In a 2001 interview, Dr. Ernst described himself as a toolmaker. “I wanted to provide other people these capabilities of solving problems,” he said.

Dr. Ernst was dozing on a Pan American flight from Moscow to New York in October 1991 when the captain of the airliner approached him. The chemist, at first annoyed to be jolted out of his slumber, was delighted to learn he had just been awarded a Nobel Prize. Five flight attendants posed with him for a photo.

He had a playful sense of humor. After outlining the technology for students at Northeastern University in 2014, he said, “It’s useful! You can even get prizes for it.”

Richard Robert Ernst, the oldest of three children, was born Aug. 14, 1933, in Winterthur, where his father taught architecture at a technical high school. He later recalled school as a time of “mental and intellectual torture” because he loathed language studies. As for chemistry, he read every book he could find, including unreliable 19th century volumes found at home.

After enrolling at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, known as ETH Zurich, he was disappointed to find that “students had to memorize uncountable facts that even the professors did not understand.” He turned to self-study with books and then met a young professor, Hans H. Günthard, who steered him into doctoral studies in the new field of nuclear magnetic resonance.

By the time he finished his thesis in 1962, he wrote later, he was skeptical about the usefulness of the technology and felt “like an artist balancing on a high rope without any interested spectators.”

At a musical gathering, he met Magdalena Kielholz, a teacher, and they married in 1963. The newlyweds moved to Palo Alto, Calif., where Dr. Ernst worked at Varian Associates with Dr. Anderson, a Stanford-educated physicist. Though Varian showed little interest in the patents they earned, their work eventually inspired other companies to make commercially successful magnetic-resonance equipment.

Dr. Ernst left Varian in 1968 to pursue his research as a professor at ETH Zurich. On the way home, he stopped in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, and was entranced by a Tibetan painting he found in a market there. For the rest of his life, he collected and studied Tibetan scroll paintings, known as thangka.

He advised other scientists to consider artistic interests as a way to escape their technical ruts and perhaps gain broader insights. His fascination with Tibetan art impelled him to study the cultural history of Central Asia, Buddhism, painting technology, pigment analysis and the conservation and restoration of paintings. “I really found a bridge between science and art,” he said.

Dr. Ernst is survived by his wife and three children. The biographical note he wrote after winning his Nobel thanked his wife for sticking with him “despite all the problems of being married to a selfish work addict with an unpredictable temper.”

Write to James R. Hagerty at bob.hagerty@wsj.com

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