Kurt Wüthrich

Born: October 4, 1938 | Aarberg, CH

Kurt Wüthrich begins by discussing the emergence of his interest in chemistry during his high school years. He remained interested in the sciences while at University of Basel and divided his time between sports, physics, and chemistry, and in March 1964 he received his PhD in chemistry, doing research with an electron paramagnetic resonance spectrometer [EPR] to study the catalytic action of metal compounds. After receiving his PhD, he undertook post-doctoral reserach at University of California, Berkeley on nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. In 1969, he returned to Switzerland to work at Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich. He concludes his interview by discussing his continued research in nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy as a Professor of Biophysics at ETH Zürich and a Professor of Structural Biology at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0284
No. of pages: 17
Minutes: 40

Interview Sessions

David C. Brock
9 March 2004
Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy, Chicago, Illinois

Abstract of Interview

Kurt Wüthrich begins his interview by discussing the emergence of his interest in chemistry during his high school years, where a highly qualified group of professors taught him. He originally intended to become a sports instructor and received a degree equivalent to an MS in sports at the University of Basel. However, he remained interested in the sciences and divided his time between sports, physics, and chemistry, and in March 1964 he received his PhD in chemistry, doing research with an electron paramagnetic resonance spectrometer (EPR) to study the catalytic action of metal compounds. After receiving his PhD in Basel, he traveled to the University of California, Berkeley, to do his postdoctoral research in nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. He was then offered a position in Bell Telephone Laboratories Biophysics Department and, in 1969, he traveled back to Switzerland to work at Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich, were he continued his research, rising through the ranks from Privatdozent to Chairman of the Biology Department. He concludes his interview by discussing his continued research in nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy as a Professor of Biophysics at ETH Zürich and a Professor of Structural Biology at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1962 University of Bern Licentiat Chemistry, Physics, and Mathematics
1964 University of Basel PhD Chemistry
1965 University of Basel Eidgenössisches Turn- und Sportlehrerdiplom

Professional Experience

University of Basel

1964 to 1965
Postdoctoral training

University of California, Berkeley

1965 to 1967
Postdoctoral training

Bell Telephone Laboratories

1967 to 1969
Member of Technical Staff, Biophysics

Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Eidgenössiche Technische Hochschule)

1970 to 1972
Privadozent
1972 to 1976
Assistant Professor of Biophysics
1976 to 1980
Associate Professor of Biophysics
1980
Professor of Biophysics
1995 to 2000
Chairman of Biology Department

Scripps Research Institute

2001 to 2004
Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Visiting Professor of Structural Biology
2004
Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Professor of Structural Biology

Honors

Year(s) Award
1974

Friedrich-Miescher-Preis, Schweizerische Gesellschaft für Biochemie

1983

Shield of the Faculty of Medicine, Tokyo University, Japan

1984

European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO)

1986

Médaille P. Bruylants, Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium

1987

Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina

1989

Academia Europaea

1989

Foreign Fellow, Indian National Science Academy

1990

Stein and Moore Award of the Protein Society, USA

1991

Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize, Columbia University

1991

Gilbert Newton Lewis Medal, University of California, Berkeley

1992

Marcel Benoist-Preis, awarded by the Swiss Confederation

1992

Foreign Associate, US National Academy of Sciences

1992

Honorary Fellow, The National Academy of Sciences, India

1993

Distinguished Service Award, The Miami Bio/Technology Winter Symposia, USA

1993

Prix Louis Jeantet de Médecine, Fondation Louis Jeantet, Geneva, Switzerland

1993

Foreign Honorary Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences

1993

Honorary Member, Japanese Biochemical Society

1996

Kaj Linderstrøm-Lang Prize, Carlsberg Foundation, Copenhagen, Denmark

1997

Eminent Scientist of RIKEN, Tokyo, Japan

1997

Dottore ad Honorem in Chimica, Università degli Studi di Siena, Italy

1997

Dr. phil. honoris causa, Universität Zürich, Switzerland

1998

Kyoto Prize in Advanced Technology, Inamori Foundation, Kyoto, Japan

1998

Honorary Member, National Magnetic Resonance Society of India

1998

AAAS Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science

1999

Günther Laukien Prize, Experimental NMR Conference (ENC), USA

1999

Otto-Warburg-Medaille, Gesellschaft für Biochemie und Molekularbiologie, Germany

2000

Associé étranger, Académie des Sciences, Institut de France

2001

Médaille d'Honneur en Argent, Société d'Encouragement au Progrès, Paris, France

2001

Schweizerische Akademie der Technischen Wissenschaften (SATW)

2001

Docteur honoris causa, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland

2002

Nobel Prize in Chemistry

2002

World 'Future' Award, The World Awards, Wien, Austria

2002

Swiss 'Society' Award, The Swiss Awards, Zürich, Switzerland

2002

Ehrenpreis 2002, City of Wallisellen, Switzerland

2002

Schweizerische Akademie der Medizinischen Wissenschaften (SAMW)

2002

IUPAC Fellow

2003

Honorary Citizenship, City of Lyss, Switzerland

2003

Honorary Member, The World Innovation Foundation , UK

2003

Honorary Fellow, The Royal Society of Chemistry, UK

2003

Honorary Fellow, The Royal Society of Edinburgh

2003

Honorary Member, Swiss Chemical Society

2003

Honorary Member, Wallisellen Football Club, Switzerland

2003

Titular Member, European Academy of Arts, Sciences and Humanities

2004

Honorary Member, International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine

2004

Honorary Member, Hungarian Academy of Sciences

2004

Honorary Member, World Academy of Young Scientists

2004

Honorary Member, World High Technology Society, Dalian, China

2004

Honorary Member, European Academy of Sciences and Arts

2004

Foreign Member, Latvian Academy of Sciences

2004

Honorary Member, Groupement Ampère

2004

Honorary Member, The Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Society of Japan

2004

Doctor honoris causa, Universitat de València, Spain

2004

Doctor of Science honoris causa, University of Sheffield, UK

2004

Honorary Professor, Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics, CAS, Dalian, China

2004

Honorary Professor, Dalian Institute of Light Industry, Dalian, China

2004

Profesor Extraordinario con distinción de Académico Ilustre, UN de Mar del Plata, Argentina

2005

Honorary Member, Indian Biophysical Society

2005

Corresponding Member, Nordrhein-Westfälische Akademie der Wissenschaften

2005

Foreign Member, The Korean Academy of Science and Technology

2005

Honorary Member, The Korean Magnetic Resonance Society

2005

Doctor of Science honoris causa, King George's Medical University, Lucknow, India

Table of Contents

School Life
1

Wüthrich works on chemistry on farm at home and in high school, where his interest in chemistry and physics is encouraged by demanding, well-trained professors. Attends University of Bern, but leaves to attend University of Basel in order to get University degree to be sports instructor. Earns degree equivalent to MS in sports.

PhD at Basel
2

Starts working on PhD in chemistry in fall of 1962. Works with thesis advisor, Professor Silvio Fallab, who supports Wüthrich's independent interests in spectroscopy. Studies EPR spectroscopy and realizes there are missing pieces in previous research. Works with EPR machine on copper proteins. Completes doctorate by March 1964. Starts work with vanadyl complexes.

Research at Berkeley
5

Travels to Berkeley to do postdoctoral research, starts to establish the theoretical foundation for the work that he had published previously. Works in the group of Robert E. Connick where he does research on physics of EPR and NMR spectroscopy, in particular spin-relaxation studies. Continues work with vanadyl ions.

Bell Telephone Laboratories
6

Wüthrich accepts job at Bell Labs to use techniques from his research to continue work with vanadyl ions and study enzymes. Begins to focus on NMR work with hemoproteins.

Appointment at Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich in Switzerland
8

Returns to Switzerland, after accepting an appointment there in response to his groundbreaking research at Bell Labs. Discovers ring flips in proteins which sparks controversy with crystallographers and eventually contributes to acceptance of NMR spectroscopy as a key technique in structural biology.

Final Thoughts
13

Wüthrich has ongoing protein research program at ETH Zürich. Does research at the La Jolla-based Joint Center for Structural Genomics (JCSG) of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California and works to further advance NMR methods for structural biology and structural genomics.

Notes
15
Index
16

About the Interviewer

David C. Brock

David C. Brock is a senior research fellow with the Center for Contemporary History and Policy at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. As a historian of science and technology, he specializes in the history of semiconductor science, technology, and industry; the history of instrumentation; and oral history. Brock has studied the philosophy, sociology, and history of science at Brown University, the University of Edinburgh, and Princeton University.

In the policy arena Brock recently published Patterning the World: The Rise of Chemically Amplified Photoresists, a white-paper case study for the Center’s Studies in Materials Innovation. With Hyungsub Choi he is preparing an analysis of semiconductor technology roadmapping, having presented preliminary results at the 2009 meeting of the Industry Studies Association.