URBANA – It was 1977, and Paul Lauterbur was taking images of green peppers with a new type of imaging technology.
He was puzzled.
One of the images showed a sort of "fuzziness" growing inside the pepper, recalled Mr. Lauterbur's wife, Joan Dawson.
That fuzziness turned out to be a tumor.
Today, 30 years later, doctors around the world are using the technology Mr. Lauterbur pioneered – magnetic resonance imaging – to detect diseases such as cancer in humans and animals.
For his work on developing MRI, Mr. Lauterbur was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 2003. Mr. Lauterbur shared the prize with Sir Peter Mansfield of the University of Nottingham.
Mr. Lauterbur, a 77-year-old University of Illinois professor, died of kidney disease Tuesday morning at his home in Urbana.
A 'mind-bending' idea
Born in Sidney, Ohio, Mr. Lauterbur earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1951 from Case Institute of Technology and a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Pittsburgh in 1962.
Mr. Lauterbur launched his academic career at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he used nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to study molecules, solutions, solids and eventually living things, such as clams and mice.
He placed items, such as the clams or mice, within a magnetic field and analyzed the radio signals given off by the atomic nuclei inside the tissues. He discovered that, by varying the magnetic field, one could create clear images of the clam or mouse. Eventually, doctors would be able to view images of a patient's body – a brain, for example – without using invasive surgery.
In the 1970s, the whole concept of magnetic resonance imaging was "a mind-bending idea. ... You had to think in totally new ways to grasp what he was talking about," said Dawson, a UI physiology professor who met Mr. Lauterbur at a conference in 1977 during which he discussed the green pepper images. "I'd never met anyone with such zest, with such intellectual breadth and depth. I was struck immediately when I saw him. I thought, 'This is very, very special man.'"
Mr. Lauterbur's work in MRI was an "outstanding achievement and without a question the most important technological tool introduced into medicine in hundreds of years," said Richard Blahut, who heads the UI Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, with which Mr. Lauterbur had affiliate status.
"To experience basically the birth of a field of science was a remarkable thing," said Dr. Joe Frank, who worked with Mr. Lauterbur at Stony Brook in the '70s and is now with the National Institutes of Health.
Frank remembered Mr. Lauterbur as "an energetic man who drove us tremendously. He was a role model, a man we truly admired."
Mr. Lauterbur had his own special name for his MRI research: Zeugmatagraphy, said Charles Slichter, a UI research professor of physics and Center for Advanced Study professor emeritus of physics and chemistry.
"It was typical of Paul that he came up with an exotic name that has some Greek root to describe what he was doing," Slichter said.
Mr. Lauterbur had a "mischievous" sense of humor, he said.
Slichter, a physicist who conducts MRI research, first met Mr. Lauterbur at a meeting of the American Physical Society in the early '60s in Pittsburgh.
Slichter was compelled to meet him after the talk.
"I thought the scientific content was just really outstanding, pioneering and original and elegant," he said. "He was simultaneously proud and modest. He knew he had something important, but he wasn't stuck on himself."
In 1985, Mr. Lauterbur moved to Urbana to become part of the University of Illinois College of Medicine.
Over the years, he taught and conducted research in several different university departments or units.
They include the Department of Chemistry, the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, the Department of Physiology and Biophysics, the Center for Advanced Study and the Beckman Institute.
Right up until his final days, Mr. Lauterbur was graceful, kind and caring, said Zhi-Pei Liang, a UI electrical and computer engineering professor who came to the University of Illinois to work with Mr. Lauterbur as a postdoctorate researcher.
On Sunday, Liang went to visit Mr. Lauterbur at home, and Liang's mentor asked how his research was progressing.
"Most people know scientists have great ideas," said Liang, who called Mr. Lauterbur one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century. "But the fact is that Paul was also a great human being."
A new direction
Throughout his career, Mr. Lauterbur continued to advance the "next generation" of MRI research, colleagues said.
These include high-resolution and highly-detailed MRIs and functional MRIs including the ability to watch things in motion, such as a heart beating.
But in recent years, Mr. Lauterbur had shifted his research gears and focused on something entirely different.
In one way, it was a shift in focus, but it was somethingMr. Lauterbur had always been interested in, Dawson said, beginning from the time he was an adolescent spending time in a makeshift lab in his parents' basement.
Mr. Lauterbur was studying the origins of life on earth – mainly how, based on the laws of physics and chemistry and the known conditions of the earth, living organisms came about.
He had a group of bright undergraduates working with him, said Steve Zimmerman, head of the UI Department of Chemistry.
The Nobel Laureate was not bound by convention, Zimmerman said.
He said Mr. Lauterbur didn't follow the hottest trends in the field.
"He was not chasing others. He did what he was interested in studying," he said.
All the while, he remained modest.
"He was a famous person; however, you never would have known it," Slichter said.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Lauterbur is survived by two daughters, Elise Lauterbur of Urbana and Sharyn Lauterbur-DiGeronimo of Long Island, N.Y.; a son, Daniel Lauterbur of Perry, Mich.; a sister, Margaret McDonough of Coshocton, Ohio; and five grandchildren.
Memorial services will be held at a later date.
Renner-Wikoff Chapel and Crematory, 1900 S. Philo Road, Urbana, is in charge of arrangements.