In 1971, Paul Lauterbur, a chemistry professor at Stony Brook University was eating a hamburger at a Pennsylvania restaurant and had a “Eureka” moment about his nuclear magnetic resonance research and how it could potentially be used to image multidimensional objects.
The moment of inspiration advanced his research that led to groundbreaking work toward the discovery of modern MRI imaging in medicine and a shared Nobel Prize in 2003. Fast-forward to 2018: Stony Brook University and the Long Island Section of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) are recognizing the late Lauterbur’s achievement as an IEEE Historical Milestone.
The ceremony, held at the soon-to-be opened Medical and Research Translation (MART) Building, included the unveiling of a bronze plaque, a presentation by Stony Brook and IEEE leadership, and discussions about new research involving MRI techniques, such as its use for personalized medicine and brain mapping. Lauterbur family members, including his daughters Elise Lauterbur and Sharyn Lauterbur-DiGeronimo, and Sharyn’s mother Rosemary Lauterbur, attended the ceremony. Work that is recognized as an IEEE Historical Milestone is a prestigious achievement. This is only the third IEEE Historical Milestone to be presented on Long Island.
Lauterbur’s first two-dimensional image created by using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) was performed in the Chemistry building at Stony Brook University. The image he was able to produce and further research led to the development of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The invention of the MRI has had enormous global impact on medical technology and clinical care. Lauterbur’s discovery and image was published in Nature in 1973 and is considered by the journal as a milestone paper.
“Quite simply, the MRI is one of the most important medical discoveries of the 20th century,” said Samuel L. Stanley Jr., MD, President of Stony Brook University. “Few people stop to consider how MRI technology came into existence. But at Stony Brook, we know the story very well. Millions of lives have been saved thanks to this groundbreaking technology. Lauterbur’s transformative work truly changed the course of modern medicine and trajectory of Stony Brook University.”
“MRI changed medical diagnostics around the world, and all that began right here at Stony Brook,” said Tom Coughlin, President-elect at IEEE-USA. “IEEE is thrilled to recognize the legacy of Dr. Lauterbur’s life-saving achievement with a Historical Milestone plaque.”
To further honor the Lauterbur family and recognize Paul Lauterbur’s contributions, Stony Brook University has named the roadway leading up to the MART, “Lauterbur Drive.” President Stanley and Kenneth Kaushansky, MD, Senior Vice President for Health Sciences and Dean of the School of Medicine, presented a replica of the Lauterbur Drive sign to his family members.
“Since the day of discovery in 1971, Stony Brook Medicine has built on the legacy of Dr. Lauterbur as a pioneer with a proud history of revolutionizing breakthrough medical discoveries,” said Dr. Kaushansky. “We can rightfully be called the birthplace of modern imaging, including MRI and PET technology. We are building on our legacy, started by Dr. Lauterbur 47 years ago in the Chemistry building, embodied in the MART building, in which the MRI IEEE tribute will reside. It’s a legacy of revolutionizing breakthrough medical discoveries that continues to transform the way medical care is delivered across the world.”
Elise Lauterbur, a doctoral candidate in Stony Brook’s Department of Ecology and Evolution, is continuing her father’s legacy of commitment to science and education. With her dad an organic chemist and mom a physiologist and biophysicist, Elise was steeped in science since as long as she can remember.
“When my dad finally won the Nobel Prize it sunk in that his work had changed people’s lives in ways most scientists never manage,” said Elise Lauterbur. “People were coming up to me to tell me that MRI saved their lives, or the life of a family member, or simply diagnosed a troubling knee issue.”
Now Elise is studying and preparing for her dissertation on the biochemistry and physiology of mammalian cyanide adaptation, particularly with Madagascar lemurs.
“My dad was a loving and encouraging father, which is most important to me. What both my parents inspired me to do with science is not the subject matter of my research, but the drive and curiosity to do research. As a child, I as encouraged to ask questions and when I did I was encouraged to figure out the answers. I was also encouraged to explore outside, read widely and do things that would bring me into contact with new information and discoveries. ”
Sharyn Lauterbur-DiGeronimo also described her father as someone who inspired her curiosity and taught her how to think outside the box and dream big. When Sharyn was nine years old and exploring, she collected baby clams near Setauket Harbor. It was one of those clams her father used to create an NMR image, the first living organism.
“My dad was as humble as he was brilliant, though he’d admit to being neither. While the MRI revolutionized medicine and research, it was not necessarily his greatest achievement just the best known one,” she said.
The Historical Milestone plaque commemorates “The First Two-Dimensional Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Image (MRI), 1973.” it cites that researchers at Stony Brook University produced the image and that “this achievement was a major advance for MRI and paved the way for its worldwide usage as a noninvasive method to examine body tissue for disease detection.”