Nobel Laureate and Pitt Alumnus Paul C. Lauterbur Dies at 77

Issue Date: 
April 2, 2007

Codeveloper of MRI technology earned Ph.D. degree in chemistry at Pitt in 1962

Pitt alumnus Paul C. Lauterbur, who shared the 2003 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his part in developing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), died March 27 of kidney disease. He was 77.

Most recently a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Lauterbur earned his Ph.D. in chemistry at Pitt in 1962. He also received the Honorary Doctor of Science degree from Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg during the University’s 2004 commencement ceremony. Lauterbur delivered the ceremony’s keynote address.

Pitt’s Department of Chemistry named Lauterbur among its inaugural group of distinguished alumni in 2000 at the department’s 125th anniversary celebration.

“Along with the entire University community, I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Paul Lauterbur,” Nordenberg said. “Dr. Lauterbur was not only a distinguished Nobel Laureate but a valued alumnus and friend to Pitt. His pioneering work in magnetic resonance imaging was a gift to the world and has led to its development as one of the most important diagnostic medical tools of our time. Our thoughts are with his family at this time of loss. We extend our condolences to them and hope that they will take comfort in the knowledge that he has left this world a better place.”

While a doctoral student at Pitt, Lauterbur did research at Mellon Institute on nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), a technique developed and refined during the 1940s and ’50s that enabled scientists to observe atomic nuclei. NMR employed a powerful external magnet that would react with applied radio waves and the natural magnetic field of an atom’s nucleus to create a signal characteristic of that nucleus. Such information could help scientists determine a substance’s atomic structure.

Prior to the development of NMR, chemists used infrared and ultraviolet waves to observe atoms, a less precise method, according to Theodore Cohen, a Pitt professor emeritus of chemistry. Cohen taught an advanced organic chemistry class that Lauterbur attended and sat on the committee that reviewed Lauterbur’s dissertation.

“When NMR came along, it was a big advance because you could pinpoint individual atoms,” Cohen said.

In doing his doctoral work, Lauterbur took the process further by applying NMR to carbon-13, a heavy carbon atom. All organic substances contain carbon; thus, Lauterbur expanded the NMR field considerably, Cohen said.

In 1962, Lauterbur defended his doctoral dissertation at Pitt on carbon-13. Cohen was still an assistant professor when he served on Lauterbur’s dissertation committee. He recalls learning all he could about carbon-13 so he could ask Lauterbur tough questions and thereby impress his older colleagues.

“I was enormously impressed,” Cohen said of Lauterbur’s dissertation. “Since all molecules contain carbon, carbon-13 NMR was a breakthrough, and he was the world authority on it when he presented his dissertation. He was a pioneer in what is now a common technique used by most chemists. He was a very original and brilliant man. He could have won the Nobel Prize for his contributions to chemistry.”

It was while dining at a Big Boy restaurant in New Kensington, Pa., some years after leaving Pitt that Lauterbur first thought of applying NMR to humans as a noninvasive way of observing people’s internal organs in diagnosing health conditions. His ideas led to research essential in the development of MRI, which uses a magnet to generate images of the insides of objects. MRI, largely used in medicine, generates clear pictures of soft-tissue organs such as the brain without surgery or radiation.

“Over the next few days, I began thinking of more and better possibilities, better ways of doing these experiments,” Lauterbur said in his Pitt commencement address. “What I didn’t know was whether the kind of radio signals that one could get from tissues from inside a person or an animal could possibly be turned into a picture… . I got to work thinking about that and using something I’d learned in a graduate course at Pitt. I thought of a variation of mathematics that might make it possible.

“I then asked myself, ‘Could you ever get a big enough signal from something as large as a human being, for example?’ I did some calculations that were standard textbook and figured that that was indeed possible—barely, but it was possible… . And I had to ask myself, ‘Could anybody build magnets big enough to put people in?’ This was a very new sort of thing.”

After earning his Ph.D. at Pitt, Lauterbur further developed his ideas in the early 1970s as a chemistry professor at the State University of New York in Stony Brook. In his early experiments, he recalibrated the magnets used in NMR to create two-dimensional pictures of objects. Among his first images was the inside of a closed clam.

Pitt chemistry professor David Pratt saw these early pictures when Lauterbur made a speech at Pitt in the early 1970s. At the time, the now-ubiquitous process of capturing internal images through MRI seemed the stuff of science fiction, Pratt remembers.

“The pictures weren’t very good, but it was still remarkable,” Pratt recalled. “He illustrated at an early stage how this technique could be used to photograph the inside of objects. We knew you could do that with X-rays. What was surprising here was that he was not using X-rays or some other high-energy radiation, but instead was using low-energy radio waves that for all we knew at the time could penetrate nothing.”

Lauterbur’s work did not garner much attention at first. The journal Nature initially rejected his findings, then printed a revised version of his research in 1973. From that point on, as Lauterbur described in his 2004 commencement speech at Pitt, others began accepting his ideas and MRI (the ominous word “nuclear” was dropped because the process creates no radiation) evolved into a technique that today is performed approximately 60 million times per year.

“Eventually other people around the world, other universities, and industry began to pick up on the ideas, and so gradually the field developed,” Lauterbur said in his Pitt commencement speech. “It’s only because so many other people picked up on these things and decided to work with them that I am here today, because, of course, no one gets such improbable honors just for having an idea—it has to work, it has to have some effects in the world.”

Pratt remembers visiting Lauterbur at the University of Illinois in 2005, two years after Lauterbur had won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine together with Sir Peter Mansfield of England’s University of Nottingham. Lauterbur’s medal was displayed in a case on a table in his office.

“When I walked in his office, he said ‘Hi, David, how are you? Do you want to see my medal?’ I said ‘Of course,’” Pratt remembered, chuckling. “He wasn’t bragging about the prize, he just wanted to show it to me. Paul was very approachable as well as being brilliant. He’s not the only person like that I’ve known, but there haven’t been many.”

(Cohen agreed with Pratt’s assessment of Lauterbur’s humility. He recalled the Pitt chemistry department event in 2000 that Lauterbur attended as a distinguished alumnus. Lauterbur was already famous for his research on MRI, and Cohen planned to seek him out at the event. But Lauterbur found him first. “I didn’t know if he would remember me,” Cohen said. “But he came over to me and said, ‘Do you remember me, Professor Cohen? You taught my organic chemistry class.’ Actually, I hadn’t remembered that he had taken that class.”)

Lauterbur tackled problems as they emerged, regardless of their complexity, Pratt noted.

“Paul did not set out to develop MRI. It’s just that one idea led to another,” Pratt said. “Can you imagine doing something in your lifetime that would result in something like MRI? Paul kept going when many other people threw up their hands because it was too complicated. When you see something like that, it gives you the courage to try something new, even if you don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

The full text of Lauterbur’s 2004 Pitt commencement address is available online.