MRI inventor Lauterbur dies

March 29, 2007

Nobel Laureate Paul Lauterbur, Ph.D, a scientist remembered as an inventor of MRI, died Tuesday at his home in Urbana, IL. Lauterbur, 77, had been in poor health for several years. His death was attributed to kidney failure.

Nobel Laureate Paul Lauterbur, Ph.D, a scientist remembered as an inventor of MRI, died Tuesday at his home in Urbana, IL. Lauterbur, 77, had been in poor health for several years. His death was attributed to kidney failure.

Lauterbur is credited with an essential insight that led to the development of MR imaging. As a researcher at the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1971, Lauterbur conceived of a way to transform the nuclear magnetic resonance responses of living tissue into anatomic images.

"He had a commanding presence," said Dr. William Bradley Jr., chair of radiology at the University of California San Diego. "He always took the high road and never patted himself on the back about his accomplishments."

A professor emeritis at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Lauterbur was honored for his discovery in 2003, jointly winning with University of Nottingham physicist Peter Mansfield, Ph.D, a Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

Since his discovery 36 years ago, MRI has revolutionized radiology by providing depictions of anatomy and disease of unprecedented clarity and precision. An astoundingly versatile modality, it has adopted roles from diagnosing knee ligament injuries to uncovering the mysteries of perception and human behavior in the brain. An estimated 16,000 MR scanners operate in hospitals and clinics around the world.

The idea behind Lauterbur's contribution to science came to him while he was eating a hamburger in the cafeteria at work. Lauterbur reasoned that a 2D image of the magnetic resonant response in living tissue was possible by introducing gradients in the magnetic field. By analyzing the emitted radio waves, he was able to determine their origin. This made it possible to build up images of structure that could not be visualized with other methods, said Dr. Hans Ringertz during his Nobel presentation speech for Lauterbur in 2003.

Lauterbur is also widely credited with discovering the potential use of paramagnetic substances as a contrast medium for MRI. He founded the Biomedical Imaging Center at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and had served as its director since 1985.

For the latter half of his career, Lauterbur was embroiled in a dispute with Dr. Raymond Damadian over the claim to MRI's invention. In 1971, Damadian performed experiments also deemed crucial to MRI's invention at the same laboratory in western Pennsylvania that Lauterbur managed that summer. Damadian, the founder and CEO of Fonar, an MR scanner manufacturer, publicly protested the Nobel Committee's decision to overlook his discoveries when it awarded Lauterbur and Mansfield the Nobel Prize.

Lauterbur was a founding member of the Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine, a predecessor of the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine. He served as the SMRM's first president in 1983.

The ISMRM honored Lauterbur with a lecture in his name in 1997. The Lauterbur lecture is a permanent feature of the society's annual meeting, providing pioneers of MRI development with an opportunity to speak on topics of note.

Lauterbur was born May 6, 1929, in Sidney, OH. He earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1951 at Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland and a doctorate in chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh in 1962. His numerous honors include the National Medal of Science, the Roentgen Medal, and the gold metal of the RSNA. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

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