New Search

Kurt Wüthrich

  • Born: October 4, 1938, Aarberg, Switzerland

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0284
Interview Date: March 9, 2004
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Interviewer: David C. Brock
No. of pages: 17
Sponsor: Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy
Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy

  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 M.S. 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 Ph.D. in chemistry, doing research with an electron paramagnetic resonance spectrometer (EPR) to study the catalytic action of metal compounds. After receiving his Ph.D. 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.


1962 Licentiat, Chemistry, Physics, and Mathematics, University of Bern
1964 Ph.D., Chemistry, University of Basel
1965 Eidgenössisches Turn- und Sportlehrerdiplom University of Basel

  Professional Experience

University of Basel

1964 - 1965 Postdoctoral training

University of California, Berkeley

1965 - 1967 Postdoctoral training

Bell Telephone Laboratories

1967 - 1969 Member of Technical Staff, Biophysics Department

Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Eidgenössiche Technische Hochschule)

1970 - 1972 Privadozent

Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Eidgenössiche Technische Hochschule)

1972 - 1976 Assistant Professor of Biophysics

Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Eidgenössiche Technische Hochschule)

1976 - 1980 Associate Professor of Biophysics

Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Eidgenössiche Technische Hochschule)

1980 - Present Professor of Biophysics

Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Eidgenössiche Technische Hochschule)

1995 - 2000 Chairman of Biology Department

Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, California

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

Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, California

2004 - Present Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Professor of Structural Biology


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, U.N. 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

Title and Description Page

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 M.S. in sports.

Ph.D. at Basel 2

Starts working on Ph.D. 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.

Hear It Firsthand

The Center for Oral History captures and preserves the stories of notable figures in chemistry and related fields, with over 425 oral histories that deal with various aspects of science, of scientists, and of scientific practices. For more information please visit CHF’s Oral History Program or e-mail oralhistory@

Support CHF

Help us preserve and share the history of chemistry and related sciences. Make a tax-deductible donation online.