Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy has been and continues to be one of the most widely spread research techniques in the physical and life sciences, including medicine, since the technique’s invention in 1945. There is no basis, however, to account for a linear success story. Although NMR was used for decades in biochemistry and molecular biology, it had not contributed substantially to solving the big scientific problems in these areas. The goal set by its early proponents—to find out about the dynamics and functions of large biomolecules—was not successfully tackled until the 1980s, when new technology became available. Much of the pre-1980s history of NMR is arguably a history of the dependence of NMR on a rival method, x-ray crystallography. In this paper I will discuss the epistemic and social processes that made the continuation of NMR as a dependent research method possible, perhaps even inevitable. Following a comparison of x-ray crystallography and NMR in the structural elucidation of large biomolecules, the paper analyzes three examples of the practices of biochemical and biomedical research using NMR from the 1950s to the 1970s in the United States: first is a fundamental, almost reductionist approach with a basis in physics and goals in technology; second, a pragmatic one with a strong bent toward biological problems; and third, a methods-oriented program, involving issues of the former two and proving the most fruitful in the long term.
This essay is part of a special issue entitled THE BONDS OF HISTORY edited by Anita Guerrini.