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Paul Lauterbur

Paul Lauterbur
BornMay 6 1929(1929-05-06)
Sidney, Ohio, USA
DiedMarch 27 2007 (aged 77)
InstitutionsState University of New York at Stony Brook
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Alma materCase Western Reserve University
Known forMagnetic Resonance Imaging
Notable prizes Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (2003)

Paul Christian Lauterbur (May 6, 1929 – March 27, 2007) was an American chemist who shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2003 with Peter Mansfield for his work which made the development of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) possible.

Dr. Lauterbur was a professor along with his wife Joan at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for 22 years until his death in Urbana. He never stopped working with undergraduates on research, and he served as a professor of chemistry, with appointments in bioengineering, biophysics and computational biology at the Center for Advanced Study.[1]


Early life

Born and raised in Sidney, Ohio, Lauterbur graduated from Sidney High School, where a new Chemistry, Physics, and Biology wing was dedicated in his honor. He did his undergraduate work at Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland. As a teenager, he built his own laboratory in the basement of his parents' house.[2] His chemistry teacher at school understood that he enjoyed experimenting on his own, so the teacher allowed him to do his own experiments at the back of class.[2] When he was drafted into the Army in the 1950s, his superiors allowed him to spend his time working on an early nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) machine; he had published four scientific papers by the time he left the Army.[2]

The development of the MRI

Lauterbur is a 1962 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and credits the idea of the MRI to a brainstorm one day at a suburban Pittsburgh Big Boy, with the MRI's first model scribbled on a table napkin.[3][2] The further research that led to the Nobel Prize was performed at the State University of New York at Stony Brook[4] in the 1970s.

The Nobel Prize in Physics in 1952, which went to Felix Bloch and Edward Purcell, was for the development of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), the scientific principle behind MRI. However, for decades magnetic resonance was used mainly for studying the chemical structure of substances. It wasn't until the 1970s with Lauterbur's and Mansfield's developments that NMR could be used to produce images of the body.

Lauterbur is credited for the idea of introducing gradients in the magnetic field which allows for determining the origin of the radio waves emitted from the nuclei of the object of study. This spatial information allows two-dimensional pictures to be produced.[2]

While Lauterbur conducted his work at Stony Brook, the best NMR machine on campus belonged to the chemistry department; he would have to visit it at night to use it for experimentation and would carefully change the settings so that they would return to those of the chemists' as he left.[5] A replica of his original MRI machine is located at the Chemistry building on the campus of the State University of New York at Stony Brook in Stony Brook, New York.

Some of the first images taken by Lauterbur included those of a clam his daughter had collected on the beach at the Long Island Sound, green peppers[2] and two test tubes of heavy water within a beaker of ordinary water; no other imaging technique in existence at that time could distinguish between two different kinds of water. The human body consists mostly of water.[5]

When Lauterbur first submitted his paper with his discoveries to Nature, the paper was rejected by the editors of the journal. Lauterbur persisted and requested them to review it again, upon which time it was published and is now acknowledged as a classic Nature paper.[6] The Nature editors pointed out that the pictures accompanying the paper were too fuzzy, although they were the first images to show the difference between heavy water and ordinary water.[2] Lauterbur said of the initial rejection: "You could write the entire history of science in the last 50 years in terms of papers rejected by Science or Nature."[5]

Peter Mansfield of the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom took Lauterbur's initial work another step further, developing a mathematical process to speed the image reading.[5]

Lauterbur attempted to file patents related to his work to commercialize it unsuccessfully.[7] Stony Brook chose not to pursue patents, thinking that the expense would not pay off in the end. "The company that was in charge of such applications decided that it would not repay the expense of getting a patent. That turned out not to be a spectacularly good decision," Lauterbur said in 2003. He attempted to get the federal government to pay for an early prototype of the MRI machine for years in the 1970s, and the process took a decade.[8] The University of Nottingham did file patents which later made Mansfield wealthy.[8]

Nobel Prize

Lauterbur was awarded the Nobel along with Mansfield in the fall of 2003. Controversy occurred when Raymond Damadian took out full-page ads in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times headlined "The Shameful Wrong That Must Be Righted" saying that the Nobel committee had not included him as a Prize winner alongside Lauterbur and Mansfield for his early work on the MRI. Damadian claimed that he discovered MRI and the two Nobel-winning scientists refined his technology. The New York Times published an editorial saying that while scientists credit Damadian for holding an early patent in MRI technology, Lauterbur and Mansfield conducted the work that led to present MRI technology. The newspaper pointed out a few cases in which precursor discoveries had been awarded with a Nobel, along with a few deserving cases in which it had not, such as Rosalind Franklin and Oswald Avery.[9][10]


Lauterbur died in March 2007 of kidney disease at his home in Urbana, Illinois. University of Illinois Chancellor Richard Herman said, "Paul's influence is felt around the world every day, every time an MRI saves the life of a daughter or a son, a mother or a father."[10]

Other awards and honors

Lauterbur was a member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame's class of 2007 and was given the National Medal of Technology from President Ronald Reagan in 1988, along with Damadian.[7]

He also received the Carnegie Mellon Dickson Prize in Science in 1993.[1]

See also

  • Nobel Prize controversies


  1. ^ a b Spice, Byron. "Nobel Prize for MRI began with a burger in New Kensington", Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2003-10-07. Retrieved on 2007-08-05. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g "Paul Lauterbur", The Economist, 2007-04-07. Retrieved on 2007-08-04. 
  3. ^
  4. ^ Nobel Prize Awardee Paul Lauterbur Returns To SBU Where His Winning Research Was Conducted In The '70s
  5. ^ a b c d Wade, Nicholas. "American and Briton Win Nobel for Using Chemists' Test for M.R.I.'s", New York Times, 2003-10-07. Retrieved on 2007-08-04. 
  6. ^ MRI — a new way of seeing. Nature. Retrieved on 2007-08-04.
  7. ^ a b Deutsch, Claudia. "Patent Fights Aplenty for M.R.I. Pioneer", New York Times, 2007-04-07. Retrieved on 2007-08-04. 
  8. ^ a b Maugh, Thomas. "Paul Lauterbur, 77; 'the father of MRI'", Los Angeles Times, 2007-04-07. Retrieved on 2007-08-04. 
  9. ^ Judson, Horace. "No Nobel Prize for Whining", New York Times, 2003-10-20. Retrieved on 2007-08-03. 
  10. ^ a b Chang, Kenneth. "Paul Lauterbur, MRI pioneer and Nobel Laureate, dies", International Herald Tribune, 2007-03-28. Retrieved on 2007-08-04. 
Preceded by
Jack Kilby
IEEE Medal of Honor
Succeeded by
Calvin Quate
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Paul_Lauterbur". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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