Once the technique was perfected, Lauterbur traveled around the world tirelessly promoting its advantages, said medical physicist Paul Bottomley of Johns Hopkins University. "It was an orphan technology, not in the mainstream of physics or chemistry, and not in mainstream radiology either," he said. "Radiologists thought MRI could never replace computed tomography" until Lauterbur convinced them otherwise.
Meanwhile, he kept at work in his laboratory, inventing a variety of refinements, including MRI contrast agents and techniques to use it to obtain chemical information from specific sites in the body.
"He was really the father of MRI," Bottomley said.
MRI has been so successful that the original technique has spawned numerous offspring. Functional MRI, for example, measures brain activity by detecting oxygen levels in specific areas. Diffusion MRI can detect strokes by measuring the movement of water across microscopic distances in the brain. MRI angiography diagnoses heart disorders by taking pictures of blood vessels.
Paul Christian Lauterbur was born May 6, 1929, in Sidney, Ohio. His earliest inspirations, he said, were his aunt Anna Lauterbur, who gave him a subscription to Natural History magazine and fed his interest in the world around him, and a high school chemistry teacher who allowed him and other advanced students to conduct experiments while the rest of the class received a lecture.
He enrolled at the Case Institute of Technology, now part of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, on the recommendation of his father, who observed that he didn't know what scientists did for a living but that engineers could always get a job.
Despite that recommendation, he chose chemistry as a major.
After graduation, he went to work at the Dow Corning Corp.'s Mellon Institute laboratories in Pittsburgh, which allowed him to take graduate courses for free at the University of Pittsburgh. At Mellon, he began working on the new technology of nuclear magnetic resonance or NMR, but that work was interrupted when he was drafted into the Army.
He initially served at the Army Chemical Center in Edgewood, Md., studying chemical warfare technology. Another unit at the center purchased an NMR machine, and he wangled a transfer to help set it up and use it. That work led to four published papers, unusual for a draftee.
After he was mustered out of the Army, he returned to Mellon but soon began looking for brighter horizons. When he was refused an academic position because he didn't have a doctorate, he took more classes at the University of Pittsburgh. His work at Mellon provided the basis for his dissertation and he received the degree in 1969.
He spent more than a decade at the State University of New York at Stony Brook before his marriage to the former Rose Mary Caputo began to disintegrate. After they divorced, he met an American physiologist named Joan Dawson, who was working at University College, London. In order to be together, they both took positions at the University of Illinois in 1984.
Lauterbur is survived by Joan; a son and daughter from his first marriage, Daniel Lauterbur of Perry, Mich., and Sharyn Lauterbur-DiGeronimo of Selden, N.Y.; and a daughter from his second marriage, Elise Lauterbur, a student at Oberlin College.