When I Grow Up

The day Paul Lauterbur brought his Nobel medal to an elementary school.

By Jason Sylvestre | December 11, 2011

A Countryside School student explain how one day she might win a Nobel Prize.

Science History Institute

It’s not often that an elementary-school student is offered a chance to see, let alone hold, a Nobel Prize. It’s even rarer that one would refuse the opportunity. But that is exactly what happened when Paul Lauterbur brought his medal to a class at Countryside School in 2004. Asked why he didn’t want to hold the medal, the child in question answered, “I’m not going to until I get one myself!”

Still, the aspiring young Nobelist owed Lauterbur and his wife, Joan Dawson, a deal of gratitude—not only for the chance to hold the medal but also for the existence of the school itself. In 1988, when their daughter was ready to enter school, the couple found themselves disappointed by the elementary schools surrounding the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, where they both taught. The community had a wonderful high school but no school that could fill the elementary void. Lauterbur and Dawson, along with a group of other parents, founded their own school in a vacant store that year, based on the ideals of small classes, individual attention, and subject classes built around each student’s level. For example, rather than all first graders taking the same math class, students were grouped by ability level. Countryside started with 13 students, all in either kindergarten or first grade. In the second year the student body doubled. Today, the school has nearly 150 students in grades K-8.

In 2003 Lauterbur won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his role in the development of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Years before, Lauterbur discovered a way to harness a mass spectrometer to make use of the spin of hydrogen nuclei in a sample. The result was a three-dimensional image of the sample’s interior. Lauterbur began by creating images of heavy water, clams, peppers, and mice. MRI quickly developed to image humans and soon became an essential medical diagnostic tool, identifying tumors, aneurysms, artery blockage, and ligament damage.

After a whirlwind year of celebration Lauterbur visited students at Countryside with his medal in tow. The thank-you package the students put together for him included drawings and short descriptions of what each would do to win a Nobel Prize. Most thought their talents would win them the prize for literature, peace, or economics. A few, however, hoped to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. One student was “good at making potions,” while another liked “mixing chemicals.” Much to Lauterbur’s delight the students at Countryside had high expectations of themselves—a prize all on its own.