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John Waugh wins Welch Award for revolutionizing NMR spectroscopy

John Waugh
John Waugh

Many of the past half-century’s discoveries in chemistry, physics, biology and materials science flow in part from MIT Professor Emeritus John S. Waugh’s pioneering work in nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). His theoretical and experimental breakthroughs revolutionized the field of NMR spectroscopy, an extremely powerful and widely used research tool that uses the magnetic properties of atoms to determine the physical and chemical properties of molecules. Today, The Welch Foundation, one of the oldest and largest sources of private funding for basic research in chemistry, honored Waugh with the $300,000 Welch Award in Chemistry for his contributions to basic research that benefits humankind.

“Dr. Waugh discovered how to use NMR to study solids, creating a collection of tools that allows researchers to view the structures and properties of proteins, membranes, viruses and many other critical components of life,” said Ernest H. Cockrell, chair of The Welch Foundation. “Ultimately, new applications in fields as diverse as medicine and batteries can trace their way back to the research techniques he initiated.”

Waugh and his students discovered and developed the fundamental methods that extended the application of high-resolution NMR to solids. In 1968 they demonstrated experimentally how to eliminate the dipolar coupling masking the small chemical shifts that NMR measures, thus enabling scientists to use the technique to determine the structure of solid materials. His team followed this discovery with a theoretical explanation of it known as the Average Hamiltonian Theory. Today this method is used in both solid and liquid NMR experiments.

In 1973, Waugh’s group made another NMR breakthrough with a cross-polarization/decoupling method that greatly increased the method’s ability to detect rare nuclei, such as carbon-13. They also carried out the first detailed theoretical analysis of magic-angle spinning (MAS). Waugh also developed the first comprehensive theory of heteronuclear decoupling in liquid-state NMR. All of these advances greatly aided researchers in determining the molecular structures of proteins, nucleic acids and drugs.

Subsequently the Waugh group turned its attention to the enormous increase in sensitivity that can be obtained by doing NMR at ultra-low temperatures of the order of 0.01 Kelvin.

Waugh earned an undergraduate degree in chemistry from Dartmouth College and his doctorate at the California Institute of Technology. It was at Caltech where he first became intrigued by NMR, a very new field at the time. He built his first spectrometer there and used it to solve a chemical question for his thesis — one of the first problems solved using NMR. He presented those results at one of the first NMR symposia in the early 1950s. He joined the MIT faculty as an instructor in 1953, becoming the A.A. Noyes Professor of Chemistry in 1973 and an MIT Institute Professor in 1988. He retired from MIT in 1997, but maintains an office there and pursues his interest in exploring fundamental physical questions via computer.

“It is wonderful to be recognized by The Welch Foundation for doing what I love,” Waugh said. “When I started out in NMR so many years ago, little did I know that I would still be writing and thinking about it more than a half-century later. I have had the special joy of helping pioneer an entirely new area of science and creating a collection of tools and techniques that other researchers continue to extend and build upon. I am pleased that my contributions continue to aid the work of scientists in so many fields as they add to our understanding of the world.”

The Welch Foundation, based in Houston, Texas, advances science through research and departmental grants, funding of endowed chairs, an annual chemical conference and support for other chemistry-related programs.

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