An obituary yesterday about Paul C. Lauterbur, who won a Nobel prize for developing M.R.I. technology into a way to look inside living things, misspelled the surname of a professor of physics at the University of Illinois who commented on his work. He is Charles Slichter, not Schlichter.
Paul C. Lauterbur, 1929-2006
Paul C. Lauterbur, who shared the Noble Prize in Medicine in 2003 for developing magnetic resonance imaging into a way to look inside living organisms, died yesterday at his home in Urbana, Ill. He was 77.
The cause was kidney disease, said the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he had worked for 22 years.
Magnetic resonance has revolutionized medicine, giving a clear look inside the vulnerable human body without cutting it open; it avoids not only unnecessary surgery but also the radiation of X-rays. Even the brain is now becoming an open book, as subsequent refinements have allowed researchers to identify which parts are active during different mental tasks.
“Paul’s influence is felt around the world every day, every time an M.R.I. saves the life of a daughter or a son, a mother or a father,” Richard Herman, the chancellor of the Urbana-Champaign campus said in a statement yesterday.
The nuclei of most atoms act as tiny magnets that line up when placed in a magnetic field, and if the field is set at a specific strength, the atoms can absorb and emit radio waves.
Physicists and chemists including Dr. Lauterbur used this technique, first known as nuclear magnetic resonance, or N.M.R., to study atoms and molecules. In early work, Dr. Lauterbur, working at the Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh, and then at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, did N.M.R. studies of carbon-13, which is slightly heavier than the usual carbon atom. The carbon-13 could act as a tag to allow chemists to track its movements as carbon-based molecules were transformed in chemical reactions.
“He was a real pioneer in the study of the nucleus of the carbon atom,” said Charles P. Slichter, a professor of physics at the University of Illinois.
Dr. Lauterbur became interested in possible biological applications of nuclear magnetic resonance after reading a paper in 1971 by Raymond V. Damadian, who described how some cancerous tissues responded differently to the magnetic fields than normal tissue.
Some scientists had already used the technique to measure blood flow and perform other properties of biological materials.
Until then, most scientists placed the samples in a uniform magnetic field, and the radio signals emanated from the entire sample. Dr. Lauterbur realized that if a non-uniform magnetic field were used, then the radio signals would come from just one slice of the sample, allowing a two-dimensional image to be created.
The nuclear magnetic resonance machine at SUNY was shared among the chemistry professors, and the other professors needed to perform their measurements in a uniform magnetic field. Dr. Lauterbur had to conduct his work at night, returning the machine to its original settings each morning.
In his initial experiments, Dr. Lauterbur produced simple pictures that could differentiate tubes of ordinary water from those containing water made of deuterium atoms, a heavier version of hydrogen.
He also took an N.M.R. picture of a clam. “Which looked pretty much like a clam,” said David Hanson, a colleague at Stony Brook. “Some people thought it was sort of wacky.”
The pictures were blurry and not particularly impressive.
When Dr. Lauterbur submitted his findings to the journal Nature, it rejected the article.
But he persisted, Dr. Hanson said. “Paul had the vision and the understanding that these were just proof-of-principle experiments,” he said, “and they were blazing a trail, and once you got the trail started, it would turn into a superhighway.”
Dr. Lauterbur appealed to the editors and submitted a revised manuscript. It was accepted and published in 1973.
Dr. Lauterbur shared the Nobel Prize with Sir Peter Mansfield of the University of Nottingham in England, who also came up with the idea of using a non-uniform magnetic field and developed mathematical techniques for analyzing the data. The images can be stacked together to form a three-dimensional view.
The Nobel Prize was controversial, because Dr. Damadian complained, in full-page advertisements in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times that he should have also been included.
When N.M.R. imaging became common for medical uses, the name was tweaked to magnetic resonance imaging, the “nuclear” dropped for fear that patients might think radioactive elements are used.
Paul Christian Lauterbur was born in Sidney, Ohio, on May 6, 1929. He received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1951 from the Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland and his doctoral degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1962.
He was a professor of chemistry and radiology at Stony Brook from 1969 until 1985, when he joined the University of Illinois.
Dr. Lauterbur was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and his honors included the Albert Lasker Clinical Research Award in 1984.
His marriage to his first wife, Rose Mary Caputo, ended in divorce.
Dr. Lauterbur is survived by his wife, Joan Dawson, a physiology professor at the University of Illinois; two children from his first marriage, Daniel Lauterbur of Perry, Mich., and Sharyn Lauterbur-DiGeronimo, of Selden, N.Y.; and a daughter from his second marriage, Elise Lauterbur.
In recent work, Dr. Lauterbur had been attacking perhaps the biggest of biological questions: the origin of life.
“He was not afraid of doing something that other people thought was very risky,” Dr. Slichter said.