Chemistry at Illinois University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Nobel Laureate Paul C. Lauterbur, developer of MRI, dies at age 77

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Paul C. Lauterbur, a University of Illinois professor of chemistry who was awarded a Nobel Prize in 2003 for his pioneering work in the development of magnetic resonance imaging, died this morning at his home in Urbana, Ill.

The cause of death was kidney disease. Lauterbur was 77 years old.

A member of the faculty at Illinois since 1985, Lauterbur shared the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine with Sir Peter Mansfield of the University of Nottingham in England.

Lauterbur was among the first scientists to use nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy in the study of molecules, solutions and solids. In the early 1970s he began applying the same technology to biological organisms. As in other NMR experiments, Lauterbur put his subjects – he first used a clam – inside a powerful magnetic field and collected the resulting radio signals that were emitted by atomic nuclei within the tissues. He discovered that using a static magnetic field and varying the intensity of a second magnetic field across his subjects yielded clearer signals, allowing better imaging of different tissues.

Mansfield, a physicist, improved the utilization of magnetic gradients and showed how the resulting signals could be mathematically analyzed.

“Through his life and his work, Paul Lauterbur exemplified the ideals of the University of Illinois – creativity, passion, tenacity, and most importantly, commitment to mankind,” said Richard Herman, the chancellor of the Urbana campus. “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. He will be greatly missed.”

Lauterbur, who was born May 6, 1929, in Sidney, Ohio, earned a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Pittsburgh in 1962 and a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1951 from Case Institute of Technology, Cleveland.

He was a professor in the department of chemistry at the State University of New York at Stony Brook from 1963 to 1985, when he joined the faculty of the University of Illinois College of Medicine. In his 22 years at the U. of I., Lauterbur also had appointments or affiliations with the Center for Advanced Study, the Beckman Institute, the department of electrical and computer engineering and the department of physiology and biophysics (now two units: the department of molecular and integrative physiology and the Center for Biophysics and Computational Biology). At the time of his death, he was a Center for Advanced Study professor of chemistry, biophysics and computational biology and bioengineering. He also was the Distinguished University Professor of Medical Information Sciences.

In addition to the Nobel Prize, Lauterbur received the following honors and awards: Technology Award of the Eduard Rhein Foundation (2003); National Academy of Sciences Award for Chemistry in Service to Society (2001); Kyoto Prize from the Inamori Foundation of Japan in recognition of lifelong research accomplishments in advanced technology (1994); Order of Lincoln Medallion, the state of Illinois’ highest award (1992); Franklin Institute’s Bower Award for Achievement in Science (1990) and the Albert Lasker Clinical Research Award (1984). Lauterbur was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the American Physical Society.

He is survived by his wife, U. of I. physiology professor Joan Dawson; a daughter, Elise Lauterbur, a student at Oberlin College; a son and daughter from his first marriage: Daniel Lauterbur, of Perry, Mich., and Sharyn Lauterbur-DiGeronimo, of Selden, N.Y. Lauterbur’s first wife, Rose Mary Caputo, lives in East Setauket, N.Y.