Paul Lauterbur dies

The chemist and physicist won the Nobel Prize for helping develop MRI

By | March 29, 2007

Paul Lauterbur, who shared the 2003 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for developing a way to create noninvasive images of the human body with nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), died from kidney disease on March 27. He was 77.
"He's really considered the father of the field of MRI," Charles Springer, director of the Advanced Imaging Research Center at Oregon Health and Science University, told The Scientist. Lauterbur first became interested in nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy while working at the Mellon Institute and simultaneously taking graduate courses in Chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh. He joined the faculty of the State University of New York in Stony Brook in 1969 and continued to explore NMR, using the technique to study carbon-13. In those early days of NMR, chemists studied the properties of atoms and molecules by analyzing them under a magnetic field. They strove to create a uniform magnetic field, which produced a clear signal from the molecules. But Lauterbur realized that the blurry images created by a non-uniform magnetic field actually contained spatial information. "It was the secret that was hiding in plain sight, and he was the one to see it," Springer said. The first magnetic resonance images Lauterbur created pictured test tubes of water and heavy water, said David Hanson, a physical chemist at Stony Brook University in New York. Quickly grasping the potential biological applications, Hanson said, Lauterbur next sought to image a living creature, but had to find one that would fit inside the small NMR tubes. He settled on a clam -- a subject suggested by his daughter during a trip to the beach. Those early experiments didn't impress many people, Hanson said. "The images looked like the same kinds of things you could see with a camera," he said. But "Paul understood that these were proof-of-principle experiments and he had a vision for where they would lead." Others weren't as quick to understand the technology's potential. Lauterbur's first paper on the subject was rejected by Nature. Determined, he revised and resubmitted, and the paper was published in 1973. It has since been cited more than 1,000 times. (Nearly 100 of his papers have together accumulated more than 3,000 citations.) From the start, Lauterbur was confident in the technology and its applications, Charles Slichter, a physicist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told The Scientist. "It wasn't conceit, but he'd thought about it quite deeply," he said. "He realized that the potential applications would be big." By the time Lauterbur joined the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1985, the importance of MRI to medical imaging was clear. Still he worked to improve the technology, said Timothy Peck, who worked with Lauterbur as a University of Illinois graduate student and is now division president of Protasis Corporation in Savoy, IL. "Paul was always thinking about what could be done to MRI to make it more useful." In 2003, Lauterbur shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Sir Peter Mansfield of the University of Nottingham, another early pioneer in the development of the imaging technique. The prize sparked a high-profile dispute, however, in which NMR researcher Raymond Damadian argued that some of his experiments predated Lauterbur's, and he should share credit for the invention. Yet according to Peck, Lauterbur "rose above" the disagreement and didn't speak out about it. In addition to the Nobel Prize, Lauterbur received numerous awards for his contribution to medical imaging, including the National Medal of Science. He was also a member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame. "In so many cases MRI has saved peoples' lives," Slichter said. "The importance of his contribution to humanity is enormous." Kirsten Weir Image: Courtesy of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Links within this article: S. Pincock, "MRI scientists win Nobel Prize," The Scientist, October 6, 2003. Charles Springer David Hanson Charles Slichter The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2003 S. Pincock, "Not winning the Nobel," The Scientist, October 8, 2003.

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