The Father of the MRI has died.

The MRI is a machine that uses magnetic waves to analyze what is inside of a body in three dimensions. The MRI has the advantage over normal X rays and CT scans since it can “see” the softer tissues that don’t show on a normal X ray, and has no radiation to harm the person.
Paul C Lauterbur, who shared a Nobel Prize for his work on developing the MRI scan used routinely in today’s hospitals has died at age 77.

When using Magnetic resonance spectroscopy to study molecular structure, Lauterbur wondered if it could be used to image a living organism. However, to do the test, he needed a living organism that would not move during the test and was very small. On a trip to the beach his daughter suggested a clam would be an ideal subject.

So a lowly clam became the first living organism to receive an MRI scan.

His paper relating the experiment had to be written twice before it was accepted by the journal Nature, but soon the idea was being worked on by others and the MRI was eventually developed.

The MRI machine has saved thousands of lives, and has greatly decreased the need for “exploratory surgery” to find something that did not show on an X ray or scan.

There are limitations to the MRI, of course, the main one being that it is expensive, and another problem being that patients with metal inside their body (e.g. shrapnel, some pacemakers) cannot be scanned since there is the danger the magnet will move the object and cause harm. Another problem with older MRI’s is that they require the patient to sit inside a small noisy tube for a prolonged period of time. About ten percent of patients panic, and need a sedative, and obese patients and larger men couldn’t fit inside. Newer “open” MRI machines have eliminated these problems.

Ironically, although Lauterbur’s contribution has enhanced the life and health of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, a google search finds only 30 news reports on his death. In contrast, a buxom model’s death of an overdose yielded 12000 plus news stories.

This says a lot about the quality of the average news service.


Nancy Reyes is a retired  physician living in the rural Philippines. Her webpage is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket

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