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Paul Lauterbur

Chemist Paul Lauterbur pioneered the use of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) for medical imaging.

Paul Lauterbur

Lauterbur developed a technique, now known as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), in the early 1970s that involves the introduction of gradients in the magnetic field employed for NMR and analysis of the data obtained to produce multi-dimensional images of organs and soft tissues. The non-invasive technique was later improved for practical application by Peter Mansfield, an English physicist. Lauterbur and Mansfield shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2003 for their work with MRI, now widely used.

Lauterbur was born on May 6, 1929, in Sidney, Ohio, to Edward and Gertrude Lauterbur. Lauterbur’s father was an engineer and co-owner of a company that manufactured bread-making machinery. He and an aunt who taught at Ball State Teacher’s College, now known as Ball State University, encouraged the younger Lauterbur in the sciences. His aptitude was noted in high school by his teachers, one of whom gave Lauterbur special permission to carry out experiments of his own design.

Following graduation, Lauterbur entered Case Institute of Technology, an engineering school in Cleveland, Ohio, because his father believed it would be easier for him to obtain work as an engineer than as a scientist. Nevertheless, when it came time to select a major, Lauterbur settled on chemistry. He completed his bachelor’s degree in 1951; his senior thesis was about his efforts to produce an organosilicon free radical.

Lauterbur accepted a position at the Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the perks included free classes at the University of Pittsburgh. During the day he did research in organosilicon chemistry, and in the evenings he took graduate classes. Both endeavors came to a temporary halt in 1953, when he was drafted into the Army.

His degree and laboratory experience qualified him for a scientific post; at the Army Chemical Center in Edgewood, Maryland, he began work as an electron microscopist. When he heard that another unit had obtained an NMR machine but had no one to operate it, Lauterbur negotiated a transfer; he had learned about nuclear magnetic resonance from visiting scientists at the Mellon Institute. His knowledge enabled him to set up and oversee the Army’s very first nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy laboratory. Lauterbur’s research at the lab resulted in the publication of several scientific papers.

After fulfilling his military duty, Lauterbur returned to the Mellon Institute, where he had been promised an NMR machine. He established an NMR research lab there and continued to work toward his Ph.D., earned in 1962. An NMR survey of carbon compounds was the basis of his dissertation.

In 1963, Lauterbur moved to New York to join the chemistry faculty at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook. His research continued to focus on the study of compounds via NMR.

The impetus behind Lauterbur’s greatest contribution to NMR dates to the summer of 1971. By that time, he was associated with a number of labs, some of them commercial. A post-doctoral researcher visiting one of the labs attempted to use NMR to comparatively study the tumorous and normal tissues of a collection of laboratory rats. Lauterbur was intrigued by the work and noted that it resulted in observable differences in the data obtained from different tissues. The technique, however, necessitated the killing of the specimen, and the data was excessively complex. As Lauterbur later contemplated the matter, he first outlined a method for using NMR non-invasively to obtain a two-dimensional or three-dimensional image of tissues.

The following autumn in his SUNY laboratory, Lauterbur tried to use the NMR technique he developed to examine a sample he fashioned from two tubes, one containing regular water, the other heavy water. From the data he attained, he was able to generate an accurate cross-sectional image of the specimen. When he initially submitted his research for publication, it was rejected. Lauterbur added a short section to his paper suggesting that, since the body is basically a system of tubes and tissues holding water, the method could be used in the medical field to image human tissues without harming the patient. The paper with the addendum was accepted and published by Nature in 1973 as "Image Formation by Induced Local Interactions: Examples Employing Nuclear Magnetic Resonance." Editors later ranked the paper among the 21 most influential published in the prestigious journal that century.

Lauterbur continued to refine magnetic resonance imaging for many years. The first MRI machines began appearing in hospitals in the early 1980s and have progressively improved ever since. They are especially useful for examining the brain and spinal cord, and are considerably better than X-ray and computed tomography (CT) technologies for many purposes because they do not expose patients to harmful radiation. Lauterbur’s work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he accepted a professorship in 1985, focused on chemistry as related to the origin of life.

In addition to the Nobel Prize, Lauterbur was the recipient of many honors. These include the Gold Medal of the Society of Magnetic Resonance in Medicine, the Albert Lasker Clinical Research Award, the European Magnetic Resonance Award, the National Medal of Science, the Roentgen Medal, the Gold Medal of the Radiological Society of North America and the Kyoto Prize for Advanced Technology, among others. He died from kidney disease in 2007