Vol. 11 Luxembourgers in the United States: Paul Lauterbur

Paul Christian Lauterbur was a chemist and Nobel prize laureate, who developed a technique, known as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

He was born on May 6, 1929, in Sidney, Ohio to Edward Lauterbur and Gertrude Wagner. On the father’s side, he is a descendant of Michel Lauterbur from Dalheim, Luxembourg. The Lauterbur family immigrated to the United States around 1846.

Lauterbur received a BS in chemistry from the Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland, Ohio. His senior thesis was about his efforts to produce an organosilicon free radical. He then went to work at the Mellon Institute laboratories of the Dow Corning Corporation, with a 2-year break to serve at the Army Chemical Center in Edgewood, Maryland. While working at Mellon Institute he pursued graduate studies in chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh.

Earning his PhD in 1962, the following year Lauterbur accepted a position as associate professor at Stony Brook University (SUNY) on Long Island, New York. As a visiting faculty in chemistry at Stanford University during the 1969–1970 academic year, he undertook nuclear magnetic resonance technique (NMR) related research with the help of local businesses Syntex and Varian Associates. Lauterbur then returned to Stony Brook.  In his SUNY laboratory, Lauterbur tried to use NMR, to examine a sample he fashioned from two tubes, one containing regular water, the other heavy water. From the data he attained, he was able to generate an accurate cross-sectional image of the specimen.

When Lauterbur first submitted a paper with his discoveries to Nature, the paper was rejected by the editors of the journal. Lauterbur persisted and requested them to review it again and added a short section to his paper suggesting that, since the body is basically a system of tubes and tissues holding water, the method could be used in the medical field to image human tissues without harming the patient. The paper with the addendum was accepted and published by Nature in 1973 under the title "Image Formation by Induced Local Interactions: Examples Employing Nuclear Magnetic Resonance." Editors later ranked the paper among the 21 most influential published in the prestigious journal that century. 

Lauterbur continued to refine magnetic resonance imaging for many years. The first MRI machines began appearing in hospitals in the early 1980s and have progressively improved ever since. They are especially useful for examining the brain and spinal cord, and are considerably better than X-ray and computed tomography (CT) technologies for many purposes because they do not expose patients to harmful radiation. Lauterbur’s work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he accepted a professorship in 1985, focused on chemistry as related to the origin of life.

Peter Mansfield of the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom took Lauterbur's initial work another step further, replacing the slow projection-reconstruction method used by Lauterbur's original technique with a method that used frequency and phase encoding by spatial gradients of magnetic field.

On October 6, 2003, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded jointly to Paul Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield for their discoveries in MRI. In addition to the Nobel Prize, Lauterbur was the recipient of many honors. These include the Gold Medal of the Society of Magnetic Resonance in Medicine, the Albert Lasker Clinical Research Award, the European Magnetic Resonance Award, the National Medal of Science, the Roentgen Medal, the Gold Medal of the Radiological Society of North America and the Kyoto Prize for Advanced Technology, among others.

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