A model theory is presented explaining a series of striking phenomena observed with nuclear magnetic relaxation in protein systems such as solutions or tissue. The frequency, concentration and temperature dependences of proton or deuteron relaxation times of protein solutions and tissue are explained. It is concluded that the translational diffusion of water molecules along the rugged surfaces of proteins and, to a minor degree, protein backbone fluctuations are crucial processes. The rate limiting factor of macromolecular tumbling is assumed to be given by the free water content in a certain analogy to the free-volume model of Cohen ad Turnbull. There are two characteristic water mass fractions indicating the saturation of the hydration shells and the onset of protein tumbling. A closed and relatively simple set of relaxation formulas is presented. The potentially fractal nature of the diffusion of water molecules on the protein surface is discussed. (author). 43 refs.; 4 figs.