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The Story of Magnetic Resonance Imaging

The role of government-funded institutions in the development of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) technology went well beyond their traditional functions as funders of basic science and sources of new talent. When medical technology companies repeatedly refused to develop the MRI concept, universities and their scientists funded and built the first prototypes themselves. It was only after they had created a working device that companies like General Electric stepped in to make MRI machines widely available.

Government support for MRI began with its predecessor technology, Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, a tool used to determine the composition and structure of matter. NMR spectroscopy uses almost the same technique as MRI; a machine produces a magnetic field around an object and aims radio waves at a particular location on the object. The magnetic field causes the nuclei of certain atoms in the object to move in the direction of the field, and the radio waves cause those nuclei to revolve at a certain frequency. By measuring that frequency and the time the nuclei take to return to normal when the magnetic field is turned off, scientists can determine the type and location of the atoms in the object.

Over the course of its development, scientists working on NMR spectroscopy received $90 million in grants from the National Science Foundation, the government’s fund for scientific research. But, with the successful commercialization of the technology by the 1960’s, the government and university researchers turned their attentions to its possible applications. Raymond Damadian, a scientist at the State University of New York (SUNY) Medical Center, was the first to use NMR for medical purposes. He began by examining a cancerous rat using the technique and soon discovered that diseased cells produced different readings than healthy cells, allowing him to detect cancer without an invasive procedure.

While considering Damadian’s results, Paul Lauterbur, a chemist at SUNY Stony Brook, conceived of using a computer to translate the NMR results from a series of numbers to an actual image. Despite these breakthroughs, however, neither Damadian nor Lauterbur were able to convince private firms to build a working device. Damadian eventually received grants from the American Cancer Society and the New York Health Research Council to buy a NMR spectrometer, before finally starting his own company, FONAR. Lauterbur visited with private sector leaders across the country, trying unsuccessfully to convince them of MRI’s commercial value. Like Damadian, Lauterbur then turned to government sources, receiving the first of 88 grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) over the next twenty years.

While Lauterbur failed to convince industry, however, he had inspired a group of physicists at the University of Nottingham in England. With funding from the Medical Research Council, the British equivalent of the NIH, the group built a MRI prototype and soon produced clear images of a human wrist and finger. Damadian followed later that year with a cross-section of a chest, taken over the course of five hours.

That development finally convinced General Electric, Siemens and Philips to build their own machines and, over the next twenty-five years, they helped refine the device. Like many technologies, Magnetic Resonance Imaging was the product of university research and private sector development, and companies like GE have made huge profits from the machines. Most of the credit for their creation, however, goes to university scientists and their tax-paying patrons.


Mattson, James. The Pioneers of NMR and Magnetic Resonance in Medicine: The Story of MRI. Jericho, NY: Dean Book Co, 1996.

Roessner, David, et al. "The Role of NSF's Support of Engineering in Enabling Technological Innovation." January 1997. (accessed November 20, 2006).

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