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John S. Waugh, 85; expert on nuclear magnetic resonance

Teaching chemistry, Dr. Waugh was popular with his students at MIT.
Teaching chemistry, Dr. Waugh was popular with his students at MIT.

In the late 1940s, John S. Waugh arrived as a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology, where his doctoral adviser, Don Yost, assigned him to study nuclear magnetic resonance. At the time, the phenomenon was so new it was not yet called NMR, the acronym by which it is commonly known today. It was even somewhat of a mystery to Yost.

“When a new phenomenon was discovered, his way of learning about it was to get a student to do a thesis on it,” Dr. Waugh wrote in an essay published a few years ago in the Annual Review of Physical Chemistry. He added: “I now know that professors are supposed to be established authorities on the subjects of their students’ theses. However neither Yost nor anyone else at Caltech had any experience with NMR.”

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Yost picked the right student to examine this emerging area. Dr. Waugh began by building a spectrometer at Caltech out of borrowed and surplus parts, and he later ran a lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he taught for more than four decades. His pioneering research expanded the range of nuclear magnetic resonance as he showed how the phenomenon, which previously was used to examine liquids, could also be used to study solids.

“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,” Dr. Waugh told the MIT News in 2011, when he received the Welch Award in Chemistry and its $300,000 prize for research contributions that benefit humanity. “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.”

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Dr. Waugh, an institute professor emeritus who taught in MIT’s chemistry department, died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease Aug. 22 in Concord Health Care Center. He was 85 and had lived in Lincoln.

“His contribution was the discovery of an entire field of research that enables science to elucidate structures of molecules and very small particles without breaking them or crushing them,” said Oded Gonen, a former colleague who is a professor of radiology, neuroscience, and physiology at New York University School of Medicine.

James Kinsey, a professor of science emeritus at Rice University in Houston, said that “one meets a lot of really smart people in my line of work, but he was really scary smart.”

Dr. Waugh, Kinsey added, was “very quick witted and deep thinking and highly original, and he really left his mark permanently on magnetic resonance,” which Kinsey called “the chief analytic tool” of modern chemistry.

In the classroom, Dr. Waugh “was a very good speaker. He always gave great talks,” said Robert Griffin, an MIT professor of chemistry who directs MIT’s Francis Bitter Magnet Laboratory.

“Most of us jam too much into a talk, but he never had that problem,” said Griffin, who had been a postdoctoral student in Dr. Waugh’s lab. “He wouldn’t try to present too much and he would always bring it down to a level that made it really understandable and interesting. He understood things very deeply, deeper than most of us.”

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Born in Willimantic, Conn., Dr. Waugh grew up in nearby Storrs. His interest in science was piqued by his father, “who was an economist and statistician by vocation, but an astronomer, botanist, and designer of sundials by avocation,” Dr. Waugh wrote in his autobiographical essay.

He went as a scholarship student to Dartmouth College, from which he graduated in 1949, and then to Caltech for a doctorate in chemistry and physics, which he received in 1953. At Caltech, his first teaching assistant assignment was a freshman chemistry section for which the lecturer was Linus Pauling, who in following years was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry and the Nobel Peace Prize. Dr. Waugh also attended Caltech lectures by Richard Feynman, who subsequently was awarded a Nobel Prize for physics.

Dr. Waugh returned to New England in 1953 to begin teaching at MIT, where he became the Arthur Amos Noyes professor of chemistry and an institute professor before retiring in 1997.

His marriages to Nancy Collier, with whom he had two children, and Polly Kenosian both ended in divorce.

To his children, Dr. Waugh passed along his inquisitive nature.

“He didn’t say this explicitly, but basically his message to us kids was to question everything and get all the information before you make a judgment,” said his daughter, Alice of Lincoln.

In 1983, Dr. Waugh married Susan Walsh, with whom he liked to sail off the Maine coast. The couple also raised a succession of Labrador retrievers.

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A former chairman of the division of chemical physics of the American Physical Society, Dr. Waugh was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

During his career, his work received many honors, including the Wolf Prize in Chemistry in 1983, the Irving Langmuir Award in chemical physics in 1976, and the Pittsburgh Spectroscopy Award in 1978. In the late 1980s, his MIT colleagues chose Dr. Waugh as the recipient of the James R. Killian Jr. Faculty Achievement Award, which recognizes extraordinary professional accomplishments and service to MIT.

Some colleagues, however, thought Dr. Waugh’s work deserved even greater recognition.

“John was intellectually frightening. He was right so often it was annoying,” said Gonen, who added: “It frustrated me that he did not win the Nobel Prize.”

In addition to his wife, Susan, and daughter, Alice, Dr. Waugh leaves a son, Fred of Austin, Texas; and five grandchildren.

“John also remained at the forefront of his field for a lifetime, for 50 years,” Gonen said. “How many professional athletes can stay at the top of their game for 50 years?”

Indeed, after retiring in 1997, Dr. Waugh kept his MIT office so he could keep tinkering and thinking about the subject that was his focus of his academic life.

“NMR is not so much a field of science, bent on the study and understanding of nature, as it is a collection of tools that can be used in studying such fields,” he wrote in the autobiographical essay.

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“As such, it is advanced by invention more than by the discovery of new concepts,” Dr. Waugh wrote. “But I have found that in inventing new tools for chemists and biologists, I have learned parts of physics and mathematics that I would not have had the pleasure of studying otherwise. In any case, I have been content to find and exhibit new tricks, for the most part leaving it to others to apply them to their own specialties.”


Emma Stickgold can be reached at estickgoldobits@gmail.com.