Magnetic Resonance Imaging
The 50th anniversary

Rinckside 2021; 32,4: 11-12.

n an evening in early Sep­tem­ber 1971, two men met at a fast-food rest­au­rant for a hamburger dinner in the small town of New Kensington in Pennsylvania. One of them was Paul C. Lauterbur, a professor of chemistry in charge of the NMR laboratory at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. The other one was Don Vickers, another NMR scientist.

During the dinner Lauterbur explained to Vickers his idea to create images with an NMR equipment, an idea he further developed during the meal. The concept sounded simple in theory: superimpose on the strong magnetic field of an NMR spectrometer a second, smaller and adjustable field.

The next day, Lauterbur bought a laboratory notebook and put down in writing the background and outline of Spatially Resolved Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Experiments, signed the text and had it witnessed by Vickers on 3 September 1971.

spaceholder red600   Magnetic resonance, or nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) as natural scientists call it, is a phenomenon that was first mentioned in the scientific literature before World War II. In 1946, independently of each other, two scientists in the United States described a physico-chemical phenomenon that was based upon the magnetic properties of certain nuclei in the periodic system. The two scientists, Edward M. Purcell and Felix Bloch, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1952.

They found that when these nuclei were placed in a magnetic field, they absorbed energy in the radiofrequency range and re-emitted this energy during the transition to their original orientation. Because the strength of the magnetic field and the radiofrequency must match each other, the phenomenon was called nuclear magnetic resonance: nuclear because it is only the nuclei of the atoms that react; magnetic because it happens in a magnetic field; and resonance because of the direct dependence of field strength and frequency.

Before Lauterbur's discovery, nobody could determine from where within a sample the NMR signal stems. It could originate at the left or right end, at the top or at the bottom. Lauterbur’s new technique changed this. He joined the strong magnetic field and a second weaker field, the gradient field. Because the strength of the magnetic field is proportional to the radiofrequency, the frequency of, for instance, a hydrogen nucleus of a water molecule at one end of a sample differs from the signal of another hydrogen nucleus at the other end of the sample. Thus, the location of these nuclei can be calculated. Once their location is known, an image can be created of a slice though an object or in three dimensions of the entire object.

Although Lauterbur did not suggest distinct applications of the new technique in his paper, he did refer to the fact that it had been shown that some "normal" tissues had different signal properties compared to pathological tissue, and he believed that his technique could be used for medical imaging. Thus, he urged his university to file a patent application, but because neither the university patent lawyer nor the university administration itself believed in his idea, no patent application was filed and Lauterbur never obtained a patent on his invention.

spaceholder red600   In earlier years, several people had described possible applications of NMR in me­di­cine and biology. Erik Odeblad was the first of them. In 1953 he had met Felix Bloch in Standford. Odeblad asked him whether he could use his NMR spectrometer to study human samples, but Bloch's response was negative. He made it clear that NMR was a tool for physicists, not for research into physiology, medicine, or biology. Odeblad returned to Sweden and got his own machine.

The two most important scientists for the development of magnetic resonance in medicine and biology were Erik Odeblad who in the early 1950s first described the differences of relaxation times in human tissue [1] and Paul C. Lauterbur.

spaceholder red600   Lauterbur also stumbled when he tried to publish his invention. In late 1972 he re­ceiv­­ed an apo­loge­tic letter from the editor of the journal Nature that read as follows:

"With regret I am returning your manuscript which we feel is not of sufficiently wide significance for inclusion in Nature. This action should not in any way be regarded as an adverse criticism of your work, nor even an indication of editorial policies on studies in this field. A choice must inevitably be made from the many contributions received; it is not even possible to accommodate all those manuscripts which are recommended for publication by the referees."

The paper submitted was very short and described his new imaging technique he had dubbed zeugmatography. For those who did not study Greek at school, zeugma - ζεγμα is the yoke, or as the author put it: "That what is used for joining." and graphein - γράφειν means to write, to depict.

Lauterbur replied:

"Several of my colleagues have suggested that the style of the manuscript was too dry and spare, and that the more exuberant prose style of the grant application would have been more appropriate. If you should agree, after reconsideration, that the substance meets your standards, ... I would be willing to incorporate some of the material below in a revised manuscript ..."

The answer from the editor was short and positive:

"Would it be possible to modify the manuscript so as to make the applications more clear?"

Finally, the paper was accepted and published in the 16 March 1973 issue of Nature under the title: Image Formation by Induced Local Interaction: Examples Employing Magnetic Resonance [2].

spaceholder red600   Thirty-two years after his invention, in 2003, the Nobel Committee conferred their Prize in Medicine on Lauterbur for the invention of magnetic resonance imaging. He shared it with Peter Mansfield, a British physicist, who was awarded for the further development of the technique.


Paul C. Lauterbur receives the Nobel Prize from the hands of the King of Sweden.
© TRTF 2003/2021.

This was the first Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine awarded in the field. Lauterbur commented on this in a lecture given in Lund, Sweden, some days after the Nobel Prize Ceremony in Stockholm in 2003:

“It has been noted that the Nobel Prize for the development of MRI was awarded to a chemist and a physicist. That is not accidental. The field developed from a discipline that was first the province of physicists, two of whom share a Nobel Prize for it, and then became most prominent in its applications to chemistry, so that chemists received the next two Nobel Prizes, for novel techniques and applications. Although the needs of medical diagnosis stimulated the development of MRI, it was firmly grounded in the knowledge and instruments of physicists and chemists, as well as of those of mathematicians and engineers, all far from the knowledge and concerns of physicians, who became its greatest beneficiaries.”

A short history of MRI can be downloaded free of charge from here.


1. Odeblad E, Lindström G. Some preliminary observations on the proton magnetic resonance in biological samples. Acta Radiol 1955; 43: 469-476.
2. Lauterbur PC. Image formation by induced local interactions: examples of employing nuclear magnetic resonance. Nature 1973; 242: 190-191.

Citation: Rinck PA. Magnetic Resonance Imaging • The 50th anniversary. Rinckside 2021; 32,4: 11-12.

An edited digest version of this column was published as:
Magnetic Resonance Imaging • Thoughts on the 50th anniversary.
Aunt Minnie Europe. Maverinck. 23 August 2021.

Parts of this column were published 30 years ago as the first Rinckside: "How it all began". Rinckside 1990; 1,1: 1-3.

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