October 2013 Issue
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Magnetic Personality


Amid a room packed with recognized academics, Mark Bier, research professor and director of Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Molecular Analysis, steps to the podium: “Welcome to the 2013 Carnegie Mellon Pittcon Lecture and our guest speaker’s second celebration.” The first one took place in the Czech Republic. This one is in Pittsburgh.

A video on the screen beside Bier highlights a line of men wielding scissors and cutting a ribbon, with attention focused on the one in the middle. Bier introduces this man as “a great friend and teacher.”

An unassuming gentleman with graying hair and an infectious smile takes the microphone. Lights dim as he clicks to his first slide. “I was born in a small village in Czechoslovakia in 1926,” Josef Dadok says, his quiet voice revealing a European accent. “Now I must admit I am a little older than you think,” says the 87-year-old Carnegie Mellon emeritus professor of chemistry, who looks 20 years younger. He continues. “My father was a coalminer. …” 

A young Josef is growing up in Dÿetmarovice, a village near the Polish border. In 1937, with his father unemployed in the economic downturn, the family lives off a small piece of inherited land, planting and keeping livestock. His sisters do domestic work. Josef delivers newspapers. 

As the baby of the family, he learned early how to read from his siblings, and he’d entered kindergarten at age three. On this special day in the fifth grade, his teacher unveils an exciting demonstration—a steam engine. Josef begs to borrow the machine. The teacher relents, and he scurries home to duplicate it with scrap. Days later, ready for testing, he heats the steam with a candle and … it doesn’t work. The disappointed boy can’t yet know that this is one of the few machines he will build that won’t. 

Soon the teacher recommends her bright student for the advanced academic school called gymnasium. He’s happy to bike the four miles each way and befriends brothers from a well-to-do family. He spends a memorable day at their well-appointed home, not playing, but intently watching a repairman fix their elaborate radio, components filling his hands.

On another day, they share books from their library. One book, The Small Edison, illustrates how to build electric instruments. Dadok thinks he can do it. Persuading his mother to give him money to buy a battery, he constructs his first electric motor. This time, when he connects the battery, it works.

His childhood is about to change. In 1938, Poland takes power, and he’s sent to a gymnasium taught in Polish, not his Czech dialect. The next year, the Germans march in, and he’s sent back to mainstream grade school—taught in German. Dadok takes a neighbor’s used schoolbooks and teaches himself English. When possible, he helps his brother fix bicycles, and at age 16 builds his first tube radio. 

In 1944, 18-year-old Dadok is forced to enter the German army. Within months he lets himself be captured by the British and works his way into the Czechoslovak forces in England. He serves as a tank radio operator, soaking up the “training.”

In the darkened room, slides flash by onscreen. Dadok’s matter-of-fact delivery belies the black-and-white tumult pictured. Crowds cheering. Soldiers marching. A group of 50 impossibly young soldiers, posed in uniform before shipping back to home. Dadok points himself out, standing on the left.

“I was born on Sunday—lucky. It’s what my wife always says whenever something works for me,” remarks Dadok. “So, of course, I didn’t go for the second time to the front. The captain said, ‘Private Dadok, would you like to stay here as an instructor?’ You can guess my answer.” The audience laughs as he smiles broadly.

When the war ends in 1945, Dadok returns to Czechoslovakia, this time to finish the five remaining years of his advanced education—in one year. He then moves on to the Brno University of Technology to study electrical engineering.

Click. Another slide, a crowd holding flags. It’s the 1948 Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia. Dadok, who doesn’t join the Communist Party, is allowed to complete his studies only because he has excellent grades and a working-class father.

His professor noticed his interest in solving problems and hires him to build measuring instruments for RF quality of glass, used to build short wave transmitter tubes by the Czech electronic industry.

When he earns his master’s degree in 1951, he becomes an assistant professor. But with another political purge that year, he is terminated. “They said I would not teach the theory of electricity in the spirit of Marx Leninism,” he remarks.

At age 25, Dadok is sent as a punishment to work at Tesla-Brno, a state-owned electro-technical company. Having been “born on Sunday,” however, within two years he finds his way back to academia with the help of a former professor—now a Czech army general. He’s given a position at the Institute for Scientific Instruments of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences in Brno. There he founds the department of radio frequency spectroscopy. It’s a new technology he’d studied from English scientific journals. Within a few years, he begins work on the project that will dominate his career—nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy.

NMR allows scientists to understand the physical and chemical properties of molecular structures in previously unknown ways—“to see inside the molecule,” Dadok says. He knows it will lead to advances in confirming known substances and synthesizing useful new compounds. In simple terms, the principle behind NMR is that the nuclei of some atoms spin and they have “magnetic moment.” When placed in a magnetic field, their spins line up. Subjected then to radio waves, they respond at characteristic frequencies, affected by the number and types of surrounding atoms and their electrons. In spectroscopy, these frequencies can be recorded, processed, and plotted, allowing for identification of molecular structure. 

Unfortunately, though Dadok can read the published studies, he has no way of examining an actual instrument, made only in the United States and Japan. Purchase is out of the question. The mere term “nuclear” violates the trade embargo against the Communist Bloc nation. Not unlike his 12-year-old self, Dadok decides to build one. 

But again, a roadblock. The Hungarian revolution of 1956 spurs political “tightening,” and in 1958 Dadok is fired as the result of a political purge. Three days later, he’s told he can continue his research, just not as the head of his own department. By 1961, he has both his prior position and his first usable 40 MHz machine. He builds a series of instruments, up to 80 MHz, for use at Czech academic institutions. He eventually transfers the technological knowledge to Tesla-Brno for manufacturing, and the company becomes the dominant supplier for Eastern Europe.

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Click. A slide shows a young man fiddling with a knob on a spectrometer board. “Here, I pretend to measure something,” describes Dadok. “Joe, you’ve got your hand on the wrong knob,” yells a friend in the crowd; the room joins Dadok in laughter. 

He describes how a U.S. company developed the first NMR spectrometer using a superconducting magnet, increasing resolution and sensitivity by doubling the operating frequency to 200 MHz. Determined to learn more, Dadok comes to the United States for an experimental NMR conference, co-organized by a renowned CMU chemistry professor, Aksel Bothner-By. Dadok laser-points to a slide of the Mellon Institute, majestic columns soaring, and says, “The conference I attended here changed my life. I met five scientists who became my friends and who strongly influenced my future career.” Bothner-By later invites him to Carnegie Mellon for a yearlong fellowship to develop a multinuclear NMR spectrometer with a superconducting magnet from Westinghouse. 

“What else can you wish for?” Dadok says. “And the design was so much easier in the U.S. because I could buy components. In Czechoslovakia, we had to build almost everything ourselves.” Dadok describes that year in Pittsburgh as his team built “the first 250 MHz machine in the world. And I was able to learn a lot about the superconducting magnets.” 

Click, click. Family vacation slides flash by. An old car, which he says he couldn’t have dreamed of in Czechoslovakia. Mickey Mouse. He explains that he was in Pittsburgh without his family until later in the year, during “Prague Spring,” when the political climate eased. His wife and two sons are able to come for a month’s tour of the United States. “Unfortunately,” he says, “it was not a good precursor.” The Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia. 

Now age 41, Dadok extends his visa, as well as his family’s, planning to wait things out. Meanwhile, he is made a full-time fellow at CMU. He expands his knowledge from analog to digital programming as they acquire a minicomputer Sigma 5 made by Xerox. Dadok develops a pioneering technique in 1972 to speed the acquisition of NMR data and increase the instrument’s effective sensitivity. Since most often it uses rapid frequency scan, it became known as Rapid Scan Correlation NMR. The 250 MHz machine, meanwhile, becomes the workhorse of the Mellon Institute facility, largely funded by the National Institutes of Health. So many researchers come from across the country to use the instrument that a small bedroom is maintained in the building for those staying to conduct experiments.  

In 1972, with their visas expired and the political climate unchanged, the Dadoks decide to stay permanently in the United States. In absentia, they are sentenced to prison time in Czechoslovakia. They will be unable to return until after the 1989 Velvet Revolution, when the Communist Party is overthrown. Meanwhile, hundreds of publications are generated through the work performed at Carnegie Mellon’s NMR facility. And for a few years, Dadok is the only Carnegie Mellon professor to conduct courses on analog and digital signal processing. In 1976 he is named technical director of the NMR facility.


Always “pushing the frequency” for improvement, Dadok and his team develop an IR-100 award-winning 600 MHz machine, built with the use of a non persistent magnetic and helium recycling system. The new instrument increases the resolution and sensitivity of complicated spectra and remains the only such instrument in the world for years. 

“Today, the most powerful NMR spectrometer we have here is a high-end 600 MHz,” Bier says later. “And we were using the same frequency decades ago with the one that Joe built. His team was on the cutting edge of NMR technology.”

After 30 productive years at CMU, Dadok retires in 1997 but maintains his office at the Mellon Institute. One day in 2007, a surprise visitor arrives. Michael Garwood, of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Magnetic Resonance Research, is in town giving a seminar. He’s asked to meet Josef Dadok. Shaking Dadok’s hand, he says, “Joe, you’re my hero. You’re an amazing guy, coming up with this so long ago!” 

Garwood has developed technology based on Dadok’s Rapid Scan Correlation technique and its ability to capture quickly decaying signals. They’re using it for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Discovered in the 1970s, MRI scans didn’t come into widespread usage for years. Useful for imaging soft tissues like the brain and heart, Garwood and his team have adapted Dadok’s technique to the MRI, allowing them to image hard tissue, like bone and teeth, and eliminating the dangers of ionizing radiation associated with the X-ray. “Joe was 35 years ahead of his time,” marvels Garwood. 

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Click. Another slide shows Dadok poised to cut a ceremonial ribbon. It pictures the inauguration of the European Union’s new NMR facility in Brno, a huge facility with five powerful, high-field NMR spectrometers, up to 950 MHz, one of the most advanced in Central and Eastern Europe. Recognized as the founder of NMR in Czechoslovakia, Dadok is the guest of honor at the January 2013 dedication of the new Josef Dadok National NMR Centre.

That ends his slide presentation. No more jokes from the crowd. Just a burst of applause.

Melissa Silmore (TPR’85) is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to this magazine.

Related Links:
National NMR Center in Czech Republic Named for Carnegie Mellon emeritus Professor Josef Dadok

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