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  • Paul Lauterbur and the Invention of MRI by M. Joan Dawson
  • Joel Howell (bio)
Paul Lauterbur and the Invention of MRI. By M. Joan Dawson. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013. Pp. 246. $27.95.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has become an essential diagnostic tool for medical practice and much more. American chemist Paul Lauterbur played a key role in conceptualizing the theory of MRI, as well as in leading its subsequent practical development. (Indeed, almost all of his scientific work had to do with MRI.) After graduation from Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland in 1951, Lauterbur went to work with Dow Corning in Pittsburgh (in the same laboratory that discovered silly putty). Drafted into the army during the Korean War, he worked with an early NMR spectrometer. After receiving a Ph.D. from Pittsburgh in 1962, Lauterbur left industry, believing that “misfits are less tolerated in industry than in academia” (p. 63), and moved to the new State University of New York at Stony Brook (SUNY) in 1963. There he did early fundamental work on the MRI, much of which was accomplished without benefit of outside funding. Early MRI images included a potpourri of assorted small plants and animals, not unlike images produced early in the history of the X-ray. The first living organism imaged by MRI was a Long Island baby clam found by Lauterbur’s daughter. In 1985 Lauterbur moved to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in part for the opportunity to be in a medical school. For his studies of MRI, Lauterbur shared the 2003 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

This biographical reminiscence of Lauterbur is written by his widow, M. Joan Dawson. Dawson, a distinguished scientist in her own right, first met Paul Lauterbur as an adult in Oxford, England, in 1977 (although, in a strange twist of fate, as a twelve-year-old she met him briefly through a friend’s father in Midland, Michigan). Dawson and Lauterbur married in 1984. They participated in each other’s scientific work, and Dawson includes numerous technical details of the MRI’s development here.

But this book is hardly a tale of scientific studies. An unusual and often quite entertaining narrative, it is based largely on personal recollections of Paul Lauterbur (who was alive when Dawson started the book), Dawson’s memories, and, apparently, reminiscences of others who knew Lauterbur as told to Dawson (including his first wife). It is also based on published and unpublished documents.

Interspersed with scientific information, many personal aspects are brought to life in loving, occasionally intimate, detail, starting with his parents and with his childhood. We read that for his first marriage in 1959, his family refused to attend because he was marrying outside of the Catholic Church. We learn a great deal about Lauterbur’s tumultuous relationship with his first wife. We discover details about the unfulfilled promises made by colleagues and employers. We are given insight into Lauterbur’s decision [End Page 300] at the end of his life not to receive dialysis for his kidney failure. The overall effect of reading this is not unlike sitting down for a casual afternoon chat on the back porch with an old friend about her deceased husband. Although the narrative is sometimes gossipy, we also go quite deeply into the underlying science, even as the disjointed chronology at times gives the book an inchoate feel.

The history of MRI is fraught with controversy. Unsurprisingly, the historical version Dawson offers is unabashedly presented from Lauterbur’s perspective. Lauterbur is said to have established almost all of the essential vision of the MRI as early as the early 1970s. In support of his priority, the appendix includes fifty pages of original documents (as both copies and transcripts). As if to emphasize the priority, the book’s cover is based on a page from 1971 notes, with the date and signature clearly visible.

This book will be an essential source for anyone interested in studying the history of MRI. It also gives an unusually personal look at the life of a successful scientist in the mid-century United States as he navigates the worlds of industry, the military...


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pp. 300-301
Launched on MUSE
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