A Medical Device Daily
Paul C. Lauterbur, a physicist who received a 2003 Nobel Prize for his work in the development of MRI, died, as the result of kidney disease, on Tuesday at his home in Urbana, Illinois. He was 77.
"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," said Richard Herman, chancellor of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, where Lauterbur was a professor. "He will be greatly missed."
Before Lauterbur's work at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, chemists used the technique of nuclear magnetic resonance to help determine the structure of organic molecules. But nobody was able to translate the technique to clinical imaging.
Lauterbur's inspiration — conceived at a restaurant table and sketched out on a napkin — was to establish a gradient in the field, varying its intensity at different points, thus making it possible to determine where each atom was in relation to the others. Assembling his apparatus, he placed a test tube inside it and startled colleagues with a faint picture. His first living subject was a clam taken from Long Island Sound.
In his original publication in the journal Nature, Lauterbur called the new technique zeugmatography — from the Greek zeugma, or yoke — because it yoked, or linked, two types of radiation, magnetic and radiofrequency.
British physicist Sir Peter Mansfield of the University of Nottingham, who shared the 2003 Nobel Prize with Lauterbur, devised techniques for sequentially altering the magnetic gradient so the device could produce an image of a 2D slice of the human body. He also perfected techniques to speed up the process, cutting the required time for producing an image from hours to seconds.
Lauterbur's university decided not to file patent applications based on his work. "The company that was in charge of such applications decided that it would not repay the expense of getting a patent," Lauterbur said in 2003. "That turned out not to be a spectacularly good decision."
The University of Nottingham did file patents, however, and Mansfield became wealthy enough to donate a new MRI center to the university.
Once the technique was perfected, Lauterbur traveled the world to world promote its advantages, said medical physicist Paul Bottomley of Johns Hopkins University. "It was an orphan technology, not in the mainstream of physics or chemistry, and not in mainstream radiology either," he said. "Radiologists thought MRI could never replace computed tomography until Lauterbur convinced them otherwise."
"He was really the father of MRI," Bottomley said.