From NMR to MRI: How an Obscure Research Instrument Became a Familiar Medical Technology

Joseph Priestley Society
Thursday, January 19, 2023
4:00 p.m.–6:00 p.m. EST (UTC -5)
Science History Institute
315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
United States

Today Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is a widely used medical tool, mentioned in news reports any time a high-profile athlete grabs their elbow or twists a knee. But the development of MRI was far from straightforward.


Varian A-60 Proton NMR Console

Varian A-60 Proton NMR Console.

Science History Institute/Emma Gothelf

The roots of MRI lie in the discovery of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) by I.I. Rabi in 1938, and the growing use of NMR by analytical chemists after Varian introduced a commercially available NMR spectrometer in 1961. MRI’s development as a medical technique also involved two test tubes of clear water, a baby clam, and a bitter public fight about the Nobel Prize. Along the way, we explored two jewels of the Science History Institute’s collections: a Varian A-60 equipped with an “Emotional Crisis Detector” and the actual coconut Paul Lauterbur used to make the first three-dimensional MRI scan.


About the Speaker

Roger Turner is curator of instruments and artifacts at the Science History Institute. He studies how the often invisible labor of scientists and environmental observers shapes daily life.


Roger Turner headshot

Roger Turner.

Science History Institute/Jay Muhlin

At the Science History Institute, Roger helped launch the student role-playing game Science Matters: The Case of Rare Earth Elements, worked on the film The Instrumental Chemist, developed the playful online experience Instruments of Change, and contributes to museum exhibitions. He wrote and curated Critical Metals: The Chemistry of Light and Mechanochemistry: The Science of Crush for Google Arts & Culture.


This presentation is our annual Ralph Connor Memorial Lecture, which was created by the Science History Institute to showcase periodic addresses on the role of research in the development of technology and industry by eminent practitioners in the chemical and molecular sciences.



About the Series

The Joseph Priestley Society (JPS) promotes a deeper understanding of science, technology, and industry, with an emphasis on innovation and entrepreneurship. Speakers are leaders from a wide variety of large and small chemical and life science companies and the financial, consulting, and academic communities.

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