Paul Lauterbur

Last revised by Daniel J Bell on 2 Aug 2021

Paul C Lauterbur (1929-2007) is remembered as one of the co-developers of MRI, for which he was co-awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology in 2003, with Peter Mansfield.

Paul Christian Lauterbur was born on 6 May 1929 in Sidney, Ohio.

In 1951 he graduated with a bachelor of science degree in chemistry from Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland, Ohio (now part of Case Western Reserve University). Subsequently he was a Research Associate at the Mellon Institute, Pittsburgh from 1951 to 1953 where he performed research in organosilicon chemistry. In 1953 he was drafted (during the Korean War) into the Army Chemical Center Laboratories , where he remained until 1955; here he studied chemical warfare. Moreover he also established a research programme into nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy. Thenceforth he returned to the Mellon Institute, graduating with PhD in chemistry from the University of Pittsburgh in 1962.

In 1963 he joined the State University of New York (SUNY), in Stony Brook, with tenure in the Departments of Chemistry and Radiology, becoming a full professor in 1984. His main research focus was NMR spectroscopy, analyzing the composition of molecular structures, solids and liquids.

In 1971 after reading an article by Raymond V Damadian, Lauterbur became interested in the potential biological usages of NMR. Researchers had already shown that NMR could be used to distinguish malignant from non-diseased tissues or to assess blood flow. Until this time scientists had employed a uniform magnetic field, but Lauterbur realized that using a non-uniform field would allow the precise localization of structures within a sample to be determined. One of the first NMR images he took was of a clam.

In 1973 he successfully published his seminal paper on MRI in Nature 3,4 (an earlier draft was rejected). In this paper Lauterbur coined the term “zeugmatography” for MRI. As he explained the word was derived from the Ancient Greek ζευγμα (zeugma) ‘that which joins together’.

In 1985 he transferred to the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, where he was a professor at the College of Medicine and in the Department of Chemistry. He was also Director of MRI Research there.

In 2003 he was co-awarded, with Sir Peter Mansfield, the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology for his contributions to the discovery of MRI. There was much controversy at the time, as Ray Damadian was not similarly recognized by the Nobel Committee. Lauterbur won numerous other awards for his pioneering work (see below).

In later years his research energies were re-oriented to the origins of life 1.

Lauterbur married twice. His first marriage to Rose Mary Caputo, ended in divorce. His second wife was Joan Dawson, a professor of physiology, also at the State University of New York. He had three children: Daniel and Sharyn from his first marriage, and a daughter, Elise from his second marriage 1.

He died at the age of 77 years, from kidney disease, on 27 March 2007 at his home in Urbana, Illinois 1.

  • Gold Medal of the Society of Magnetic Resonance in Medicine (1982) 5
  • American Physical Society Biological Physics Prize (1983) 7
  • Albert Lasker Clinical Research Award (1984) 1
  • Michelson-Morley Award (1984) 6
  • elected to the National Academy of Sciences (1985) 10
  • Harvey Prize in Science and Technology (1986) 8
  • National Medal of Science (1987) 9
  • Gold Medal of the Radiological Society of North America (1987) 3
  • IEEE Medal of Honor (1987) 3
  • Gold Medal of the Society of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (1988) 5
  • Gold Medal of the European Congress of Radiology (1999) 3
  • Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology (2003)
  • Honorary doctorate from the University of Liege in Belgium
  • development of MRI

ADVERTISEMENT: Supporters see fewer/no ads

Updating… Please wait.

 Unable to process the form. Check for errors and try again.

 Thank you for updating your details.